Chronic Myelogenous Leukaemia

What is chronic myeloid leukaemia?

Chronic myeloid leukaemia, also known as CML, is a form of leukaemia, which is a form of cancer that impacts on the body's blood cell production. CML is a rare form of cancer, with around 700 cases of the disease diagnosed each year in the UK. CML causes the body to produce too many white blood cells. CML is rare in children and often has an impact on people aged above 40. It is also found more commonly among men rather than women.

What causes CML?

CML develops when a gene is moved from one chromosome to another during cell division, which causes two genes to fuse together. Once the fusion has taken place, the abnormal gene is passed on to other cells and these are known as leukaemia cells. Leukaemia cells look different to normal cells and more than 95 percent of people with CML have a chromosome known as the Philadelphia chromosome.

It is not known why some people develop CML and others don't. However, there are some factors that are thought to increase the chances of chronic myeloid leukaemia developing, including:

  • Age: your risk of developing CML increases with age
  • Compromised immune system: this increases the risk of developing CML
  • Previous treatment for cancer: if you have had radiotherapy this may increase your risk of developing CML, but the increase is only very slight

Symptoms of CML

CML may develop slowly and in the early stages, symptoms may include:

  • Weight loss and a loss of appetite
  • Tiredness
  • Night sweats
  • Fever
  • Tenderness on the left side of the abdomen (caused by an enlarged spleen)

As the condition progresses, symptoms may be more noticeable and may include:

  • Increased susceptibility to infections
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Itching
  • Paleness and tiredness
  • Bleeding and bruising easily

How is CML diagnosed?

If you have symptoms that are associated with CML or abnormal blood tests your GP will refer you for further tests. The tests will be carried out in hospital and you will see a specialist haematologist. Tests that are likely to be undertaken include additional blood tests, X-rays and bone marrow biopsy tests. The results of all the tests will be used to reach a concrete diagnosis.

How is CML treated?

Medication is usually used to treat CML and in the early stages a form of medication called imatinib is usually prescribed. Chemotherapy drugs may also be used during the accelerated phase and dosages and combinations of drugs may be adapted throughout the treatment process as the disease progresses.

What is the outlook for people with CML?

The outlook for people with CML depends on the individual case. Factors including the stage of cancer, how well the cancer responds to treatment and the individual's general health can all play a part in determining the prognosis. Almost 90 percent of people who take imatinib survive for at least seven years after diagnosis.

Living with CML

Coming to terms with the reality that you have chronic myeloid leukaemia can be daunting, but there will be a dedicated care team on hand to provide assistance. If you require additional support or counsel, you are able to find assistance from the cancer charities offering support in the UK.

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