Cancer Support Group

Monday, Nov 20th

Last update:06:42:40 AM GMT

Leukemia Causes

Like all cancers, leukemia’s and the related diseases of the blood arise as a result of changes in, or damage to, the genes which control cell growth, development and division. In most cases, no specific cause can be identified. There are certain factors which are known to increase the risk of developing leukemia or one of the related diseases.

Biological Factors
Inheritance
There is no evidence that any form of cancer can be inherited. Even in very rare cases of cancer being present at birth, the disease develops as a result of cell damage which happened in the uterus. In the vast majority of cases of leukemia and other forms of cancer, there is no evidence that relatives of the patient are at greater risk than anyone else.

There are some inherited conditions in which the risk of developing cancer is increased. Examples include Down’s Syndrome and a condition called Ataxia Telangiectasia. Ataxia Telangiectasia affects the ability of the cell to repair damage to the genes and because of this, many different cancers are seen more frequently than in the general population. In other cases, including Down’s Syndrome, the reasons are not well understood.

Age
There are a few types of cancer which occur more commonly in childhood than in adults. One of these is Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), which is more common between the ages of 2 and 5 years than at any other age. This is known as the childhood peak of leukemia. Some diseases, such as Myeloma and Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, are almost never seen in young people. The risk of developing leukemia or a related condition increases with age. The increased numbers of cases of many types of cancer in older people is probably simply a result of the accumulation of genetic damage to cells over the years. Much of the time damage to the cell will result in cell death but with over 3 million new blood cells being produced every second it is inevitable that some cells will accumulate damage to genes over the years.

Infections
Leukemia is not an infectious condition. It is, however, possible that some viral infections may act as triggers or as co–factors. A virus called the Epstein–Barr Virus (EBV) is associated with some cases of Hodgkin’s disease in children and older adults. It is clear that EBV by itself is not enough to cause the disease because infection with the virus is very common in the general population whereas Hodgkin’s Disease is fairly rare.

Other viruses, not yet identified, may be involved in the causes of lymphoma and leukemia. There is only one virus which is definitely known to cause leukemia or lymphoma in humans. This virus is called HTLV–1 (Human T–cell Leukemia/Lymphoma Virus). It is only common in Japan and to a lesser extent in the Caribbean. It takes decades from the time of infection for the leukemia or lymphoma to develop. Aplastic anemia may be seen as a rare complication of viral hepatitis or of other viral infections or disorders of the immune system. This is probably the cause of only a small minority of cases. The pattern of exposure to infection may be significant in the causes of the childhood peak of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.

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