Skip Navigation

General Information About Adult Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell).

Adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL; also called acute lymphocytic leukemia) is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. This type of cancer usually gets worse quickly if it is not treated.

Leukemia may affect red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.

Normally, the bone marrow makes blood stem cells (immature cells) that become mature blood cells over time. A blood stem cell may become a myeloid stem cell or a lymphoid stem cell.

A myeloid stem cell becomes one of three types of mature blood cells:

  • Red blood cells that carry oxygen and other substances to all tissues of the body.
  • Platelets that form blood clots to stop bleeding.
  • Granulocytes (white blood cells) that fight infection and disease.

A lymphoid stem cell becomes a lymphoblast cell and then one of three types of lymphocytes (white blood cells):

  • B lymphocytes that make antibodies to help fight infection.
  • T lymphocytes that help B lymphocytes make the antibodies that help fight infection.
  • Natural killer cells that attack cancer cells and viruses.

In ALL, too many stem cells become lymphoblasts, B lymphocytes, or T lymphocytes. These cells are also called leukemia cells. These leukemia cells are not able to fight infection very well. Also, as the number of leukemia cells increases in the blood and bone marrow, there is less room for healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. This may cause infection, anemia, and easy bleeding. The cancer can also spread to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).

This summary is about adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia. See the following PDQ summaries for information about other types of leukemia:

Previous chemotherapy and exposure to radiation may increase the risk of developing ALL.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Possible risk factors for ALL include the following:

  • Being male.
  • Being white.
  • Being older than 70.
  • Past treatment with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
  • Being exposed to high levels of radiation in the environment (such as nuclear radiation).
  • Having certain genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome.

Signs and symptoms of adult ALL include fever, feeling tired, and easy bruising or bleeding.

The early signs and symptoms of ALL may be like the flu or other common diseases. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Weakness or feeling tired.
  • Fever or night sweats.
  • Easy bruising or bleeding.
  • Petechiae (flat, pinpoint spots under the skin, caused by bleeding).
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Weight loss or loss of appetite.
  • Pain in the bones or stomach.
  • Pain or feeling of fullness below the ribs.
  • Painless lumps in the neck, underarm, stomach, or groin.
  • Having many infections.

These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia or by other conditions.

Tests that examine the blood and bone marrow are used to detect (find) and diagnose adult ALL.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as infection or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient's health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Complete blood count (CBC) with differential: A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the following:
    • The number of red blood cells and platelets.
    • The number and type of white blood cells.
    • The amount of hemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen) in the red blood cells.
    • The portion of the blood sample made up of red blood cells.
  • Blood chemistry studies: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs and tissues in the body. An unusual (higher or lower than normal) amount of a substance can be a sign of disease.
  • Peripheral blood smear: A procedure in which a sample of blood is checked for blast cells, the number and kinds of white blood cells, the number of platelets, and changes in the shape of blood cells.
  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy: The removal of bone marrow, blood, and a small piece of bone by inserting a hollow needle into the hipbone or breastbone. A pathologist views the bone marrow, blood, and bone under a microscope to look for abnormal cells.

    The following tests may be done on the samples of blood or bone marrow tissue that are removed:

    • Cytogenetic analysis: A laboratory test in which the chromosomes of cells in a sample of blood or bone marrow are counted and checked for any changes, such as broken, missing, rearranged, or extra chromosomes. Changes in certain chromosomes may be a sign of cancer. For example, in Philadelphia chromosome–positive ALL, part of one chromosome switches places with part of another chromosome. This is called the “Philadelphia chromosome.” Cytogenetic analysis is used to help diagnose cancer, plan treatment, or find out how well treatment is working.
    • Immunophenotyping: A laboratory test that uses antibodies to identify cancer cells based on the types of antigens or markers on the surface of the cells. This test is used to help diagnose specific types of leukemia. For example, a cytochemistry study may test the cells in a sample of tissue using chemicals (dyes) to look for certain changes in the sample. A chemical may cause a color change in one type of leukemia cell but not in another type of leukemia cell.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The age of the patient.
  • Whether the cancer has spread to the brain or spinal cord.
  • Whether there are certain changes in the genes, including the Philadelphia chromosome.
  • Whether the cancer has been treated before or has recurred (come back).
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Navigating Care disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information. This information was sourced and adapted from Adapted from the National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ®) Cancer Information Summaries on www.cancer.gov.

See Expert Resources

The Navigating Care Library includes articles about cancer, chemotherapy regimens and drugs from the the National Cancer Institute and other experts.

Specific Facts for Your Diagnosis

Learn about treatment options and managing side effects from experts.

Get Support on Your Cancer Journey

Connect with thousands of members with your diagnosis and learn from their experiences.