When Leukemia Spreads In the Body

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

Leukemia starts in the bone marrow, where new blood cells form. As the cancer cells multiply, they quickly enter the bloodstream and circulate through the body. Many advanced cancers — such as breast, lung, or prostate cancer — form solid tumors when they spread, or metastasize, to another place in the body. Leukemia can’t really be called metastatic, however, because it has already spread throughout the body when it’s diagnosed, and only very rarely forms solid tumors.

Scientist looking at cells under a microscope.
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Cancers still go by the same name, even when they spread

When, for instance, breast cancer spreads to another part of the body, such as the brain, you may think we would call it brain cancer. Instead, we call it breast cancer, which has spread to the brain. The cells there still look like breast cancer cells, not brain cancer cells, under a microscope; they are just in a new part of the body. The same is true of leukemia. Next: some of the places it can spread.

Lymphatic system model.
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Leukemia can spread to the lymph nodes

Leukemia can travel through the blood to the lymphatic system, a part of the immune system which makes and store cells that fight infection. When leukemia spreads to small organs called lymph nodes in the chest, it can crowd the trachea, causing heart blood flow and breathing problems. Lymph node disease is common in adults with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), but rarely occurs with acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

Woman and liver model.
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Leukemia can spread to the liver

Cancer cells can collect and enlarge the liver, causing discomfort, in acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), acute myeloid leukemia (AML), and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).

Human anatomy model of the spleen.
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Leukemia can spread to the spleen

The spleen helps the liver and lymph nodes to filter old and worn-out cells from the blood. In acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), and chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), cancer cells can gather in the spleen and enlarge it, which may cause discomfort and dangerously lower your blood cell counts. Patients with chronic leukemias may need to have the spleen surgically removed, which can help raise the blood cell counts.

Man undergoing an EEG.
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Leukemia can spread to the central nervous system

Leukemia cells can spread to the central nervous system and build up in the fluid surrounding the spine and the brain. This can cause symptoms like headaches, seizures, balance problems, and abnormal vision.

A woman scratches and itchy eczema rash on her hand.
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Leukemia can spread to the skin

Leukemia can spread to the skin, but usually after it has already spread to other places in the body. Leukemia cells can cause lumps or spots that may look like everyday rashes.

Doctor examines male patient, abdomen.
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Leukemia can spread to the testicles

Although rare, leukemia can spread to the testicles, making them increase in size and firmness.

Young girl holding a teddy bear.
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Leukemia in children is usually acute and spreads quickly

Chronic leukemias are very rare in children. Acute leukemias are aggressive and in just a few months can spread throughout the child’s body.

Woman with cancer.
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Chronic leukemia

Chronic leukemias, generally found in adults, are slow-growing and don’t always spread. When they do spread, cancer cells can gather in the lymph nodes, kidneys, adrenal glands, and the heart.

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.