Leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells that affects more than 60,000 people each year. And while scientists understand how leukemia forms, they don’t quite understand the exact cause of it. 

In general, leukemia develops when the DNA in blood cells mutate, disabling their ability to control growth and division. Over time, these abnormal cells can crowd out healthy blood cells in the bone marrow, eventually causing the signs and symptoms of leukemia.

While the exact cause of a person’s leukemia may not be known, there are certain risk factors linked to the disease. 

Known risk factors for leukemia include:

  • Age: The risk of most leukemias increases with age with the exception of acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), which mostly occurs in people under the age of 20. 
  • Family history: If members of your family have been diagnosed with leukemia, your risk of the disease may be increased.
  • Smoking: Tobacco use can increase the risk of some leukemias. 
  • Genetic disorders: Certain genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome, Fanconi anemia, Bloom syndrome, neurofibromatosis type 1, Trisomy 8, Klinefelter syndrome, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, Kostmann syndrome, and Shwachman-Diamond syndrome are associated with an increased risk of leukemia.
  • Blood disorders: Other blood cancers or disorders, such as polycythemia vera, primary myelofibrosis, essential thrombocythemia and myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) could contribute to an increased leukemia risk.
  • Previous cancer treatment: Past chemotherapy or radiation treatments for other cancers can increase the risk of certain leukemias. 
  • Exposure to cancer-causing agents: Exposure to radiation and certain chemicals are known to increase the risk of leukemia. This can include exposure to high-energy radiation (e.g. atomic bomb explosions or nuclear reactor accidents), intense exposure to low-energy radiation from electromagnetic fields (e.g. power lines), and exposure to toxic substances such as benzene and Agent Orange.  

If you feel as though you might be at an increased risk for developing leukemia, we recommend that you talk with your physician to express your concerns. If you have already been diagnosed with leukemia, however, know that Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers is committed to helping you every step of the way. By providing access to advanced treatments and supportive cancer care customized to your specific needs, we will battle leukemia together.