The symptoms you may experience that lead to a leukemia diagnosis can depend on what type of leukemia you have, says Jack Jacoub, M.D., medical oncologist and medical director of MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
Although each type of leukemia has its unique characteristics and treatment needs, Dr. Jacoub says there are some common signs that may prompt a physician to consider leukemia as a potential diagnosis. Read on to learn more.
Leukemia occurs when stem cells in the bone marrow produce blood cells that are abnormal, including white blood cells. Since your immune system depends on these cells to function properly, your ability to fight off infection is significantly compromised.
With your immune system affected, you may feel an overwhelming sense of tiredness, particularly on a frequent basis, Dr. Jacoub says. This is especially true with some types like chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which causes the number of red blood cells to drop, which can result in anemia. Anemia is a condition when you don’t have enough red blood cells to bring adequate oxygen to your body’s tissues, which can make you feel tired and short of breath.
The anemia that often accompanies leukemia can cause general weakness, which may be accompanied by other anemia signs like dizziness, cold hands and feet, headache, and pale skin.
Because leukemia affects your body's blood-clotting ability, frequent bruising is a common symptom, says Dr. Jacoub. Even seemingly minor incidents like bumping against a table can cause a bruise to form, he says, adding that many people experience bruising that has no related incident. These bruises can form anywhere on the body, but are most typical on the arms and legs.
Also due to blood clotting issues caused by leukemia, you may experience bleeding that's more difficult to control. For example, you may experience nosebleeds, find blood in your stool or urine, or have ample bleeding when flossing your teeth. You might also bleed more than you normally would from minor cuts and scrapes.
A low platelet count associated with leukemia can result in a condition called petechiae, a distinctive, painless rash that looks like tiny red dots jotted onto your skin with a pen. The rash is most often seen around the ankles, according to Dr. Jacoub, since gravity draws your body’s fluids downward during the day.
This symptom is less common than other signs like bruising and fatigue, but it's still an issue that should be watched, Dr. Jacoub says. Usually, a low-grade, consistent fever is caused by infection or a virus that's not getting cleared from your system because your immunity is affected.
Swollen lymph nodes
Persistent infection can cause lymph nodes to enlarge and stay swollen when you have a compromised immune system. That’s because the lack of a normal immune response makes it more difficult for your body to clear the infection. You have lymph nodes throughout your body, but when they become swollen, the ones that are most noticeable are usually in the neck and armpits.
Often another sign of low-grade infection that is persistent because of a compromised immune system, night sweats are episodes of intense perspiration that can be so extreme that it soaks your bedding and pajamas. But keep in mind that type of symptom can be related to numerous conditions, such as anxiety, menopause, and hyperthyroidism.
With your immune system compromised, that can make it easier for viruses to take hold. This symptom can be ongoing for quite a while, especially in chronic forms of leukemia. If you feel like you just can’t shake a cold, or experience any of the other symptoms on this list—particularly if you have several symptoms occurring together—Dr. Jacoub suggests seeing your doctor so you can get a blood test to get an idea of what might be going on.