Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a cancer of the white blood cells in the bone marrow. The white blood cells (lymphocytes) grow in the bone marrow, then travel throughout the body to fight infections.

ALL also causes the bone marrow to make too many of these cells. The overgrowth makes it difficult for other blood cells like red blood cells or platelets to develop. Low levels of other blood cells can cause a variety of symptoms such as bleeding problems, fatigue, and shortness of breath.

White Blood Cells
White Blood Cells

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


The cause of ALL is unknown. Many cancers are believed to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Risk Factors

ALL is more common in white males. It is also more likely to occur in children, and in adults over 70 years of age. Other factors that may increase your chances of ALL:

  • Previous chemo- or radiation therapy treatment
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals such as pesticides or benzene—common in agriculture, dye works, and paint manufacturing and use
  • Exposure to atomic bomb radiation or nuclear reactor accident
  • Certain genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome, Bloom syndrome, Fanconi's anemia, ataxia-telangiectasia, neurofibromatosis, Shwachman syndrome, IgA deficiency, and congenital X-linked agammaglobulinemia

Factors that may increase the chances of ALL in children only:

  • Having a brother or sister with leukemia
  • Exposure to x-rays before birth
  • Exposure to radiation, including X-rays and CT scans
  • Previous chemotherapy or other treatment that weakens the immune system


ALL may cause:

  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Pale skin
  • Night sweats
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Flat, pinpoint spots under the skin caused by bleeding—petechiae
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Bone or joint pain
  • Stomach pain
  • Pain or a feeling of fullness below the ribs
  • Painless lumps in the neck, underarms, stomach, or groin
  • Swelling of the liver and/or spleen


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done, including checking for swelling of the liver, spleen, or lymph nodes. If your doctor suspects leukemia, you will likely be referred to a specialist.

Abnormal cells may be found through:

  • Blood tests—assessing number of different blood cells to look for abnormally high or low levels and tests of other substances in the blood that may indicate organ stress
  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy —to remove and test a portion of bone marrow

Further tests may be done to provide detailed information about the leukemia. These tests will help guide treatment. Tests may include:

  • Cytogenetic analysis—to look for DNA changes in the lymphocytes or other genetic abnormalities
  • Immunophenotyping—examination of the proteins on cell surfaces and the antibodies produced by the body; to distinguish lymphoblastic from myeloid leukemia and determine types of therapy
  • Lumbar puncture —tests the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord for the presence of cancer
  • Chest x-ray —to look for spreading of cancer to the lungs


Talk with your doctor about the best plan for you. Treatment of ALL is done in 2 phases. First, remission induction therapy is used to kill leukemia cells. Then, maintenance therapy is used to kill any remaining leukemia cells. Cells left behind could grow and cause a relapse. Treatment options include:


Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It may be given by pill, injection, and through an IV. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body. It kills mostly cancer cells, but also some healthy cells.

Clinical trials are now underway to test medications that are better are targeting cancer cells. One drug is imatinib. This drug is used to treat chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). It helps to prevent the function of genes associated with ALL.

Some ALL may spread to the brain and spinal cord. In this case, chemotherapy may be deliverd directly into the spinal column. This type of chemotherapy is known as intrathecal therapy.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is the use of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. For ALL, external radiation therapy is used. The radiation is directed at the tumor from outside the body. This type of treatment is used for ALL that has or may spread to the brain and spinal cord.

Chemotherapy with Stem Cell Transplant

Stem cells are immature blood cells that are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient or donor. The chemotherapy destroys the blood cells. The stem cells are then infused through the blood to restore the blood cells. It is most often used with ALL that was treated, but then returned.

Biologic Therapy

This process is still being tested in clinical trials. This is the use of medications or substances made by the body. The substance is used to increase or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer. This type of therapy is also called biological response modifier therapy. Sometimes, very specific (monoclonal) antibodies are developed to target the leukemia cells specifically. Currently, monoclonal antibody therapy is restricted to clinical trails and not generally available.

Possible Development of New Cancers

People treated for ALL in their youth may have a risk of cancer later in life. The exact type of new cancer can vary. It is important that people who have had ALL be carefully watched for new cancer development. These screenings should be carried out through their lifetime.


There are no current guidelines for preventing ALL since its cause is unknown.


American Cancer Society

National Cancer Institute


Canadian Cancer Society

Provincial Health Services Authority


Acute lymphoblastic leukemia/lymphoma (ALL). EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated October 13, 2017. Accessed January 8, 2018.

Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) in adults. American Cancer Society website. Available at: Accessed January 8, 2018.

General information about adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Updated October 26, 2017. Accessed January 8, 2018.

General information about childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Updated December 8, 2017. Accessed January 8, 2018.

Leukemia in children. American Cancer Society website. Available at: Accessed January 8, 2018.

3/29/2007 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance Hijiya N, Hudsdon MM, Lensing S, et al. Cumulative incidence of secondary neoplasms as a first event after childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia. JAMA. 2007;297(11):1207-1215.

Last reviewed November 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP  Last Updated: 12/20/2014