Acute lymphocytic leukemia, sometimes called acute lymphoblastic leukemia or ALL, develops in young white blood cells called lymphocytes. These lymphocytes live in your bone marrow, the spongy inner tissue of your bones responsible for making new blood cells.
Leukemia is a quickly progressing cancer. It invades your blood and spreads to other parts of the body without treatment. Parts commonly affected by leukemia include your lymph nodes, spleen, central nervous system and liver. In many men, leukemia also spreads to the testicles. Other cancers spread to these organs, too. But that alone does not make those cancers leukemia.
The name of this cancer, including the term acute, refers to its quick progression if not treated. Without treatment, people with acute lymphocytic leukemia usually die within several months. Another type of acute leukemia, acute myeloid leukemia (AML), differs and affects other types of blood cells in the bone marrow.
Many people confuse leukemia with lymphoma. After all, both types of cancer affect lymphocytes. But leukemias affect your blood and bone marrow, sometimes spreading to other parts of the body. Lymphomas, on the other hand, primarily affect your lymph nodes and other organs, sometimes involving bone marrow.
Sometimes diagnosing leukemia or lymphoma takes time. Finding cancerous lymphocytes in both bone marrow and lymph nodes make it hard to tell which disease exists. The general rule is that when more than 25 percent of your bone marrow is cancerous, the diagnosis is leukemia. Lymph node size also helps form a diagnosis. Bigger lymph nodes point to lymphoma.
Leukemia is a confusing cancer. Many types of this disease exist and their differences prove complex. Those identifying differences include the types of cells where the cancer starts, growth rate of the cancer, which people the disease affects and how the leukemia must be treated. For a clear understanding of leukemia, you also need some understanding of the blood and lymph systems.
With such a big learning curve for leukemia understanding, you may feel overwhelmed early in your diagnosis and treatment. But your treatment team exists for the purpose of helping you understand and fight your cancer. Ask questions to help gain understanding and comfort in knowing your treatment choices give you the best chance of overcoming your disease.