What Causes Leukemia?

After an initial diagnosis of leukemia has been processed, medication has been prescribed, and the oncology visits have been established, the next question that arises is, “How do you get leukemia?” In our Ask the CML Experts portal, we have responded to many of your questions regarding the possible causes of CML by providing you with the most current understanding of this disease and its origin.


How do you get leukemia? An illustration of translocated chromosomes 9 and 22.


Does exposure to chemicals raise your risk of developing CML?

There are conflicting views on whether Benzene exposure increases a person’s susceptibility to development of CML. There is a confirmed connection between Benzene exposure and Acute Myelogenous Leuemia (AML), however, research has been inconclusive on the connection between Benzene and CML.

Is leukemia inherited?

Chronic Myeloid Leukemia is a genetic disease, but not a hereditary disease. The majority of leukemia patients have no family history of the disease and there is no evidence that it can be passed on to the children of someone living with the disease.  Occasionally, there are families that may have other members living with leukemia, however, there is no conclusive evidence that family members are predisposed to develop leukemia.

Can leukemia be acquired through a blood transfusion?

Because there is no known cause of leukemia, the only way it could be acquired through a blood transfusion would be the the direct introduction of leukemic cells in the recipient. However, because the cells of a random donor would be seen as foreign, they would be immediately destroyed by the recipient.  There is no evidence that leukemia has ever been acquired from a blood transfusion.

Are blood transfusions safe?

Yes.  Today’s screening processes exclude transmission of infectious agents.  All donated blood (units) is screened for HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

There are a variety of other considerations such as noninfectious risks such as sudden destruction on the transfused red cells or even late destruction of the transfused red cell.  However, these are very rare and the benefit outweighs the very small risk.

In some individuals with congestive heart failure, circulatory

I’ve had radiation therapy from a previous cancer. Do I have a higher risk of developing CML?

The occurrence of this is quite low but your health care team will ask you about previous radiation exposure when documenting your history. If they do not ask you, tell them so that they will have a complete picture of your medical history. There is some evidence that patients who have been diagnosed with other cancers and have received radiation therapy have a greater incidence of Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML). High levels of radiation exposure such as those experienced by individuals during World War II, have been associated with an increase in risk of developing several different types of cancers and conditions.

Like most cancers, the need for further studies on the causes of CML exists. The translocation of the end of chromosomes 9 and 22 (the root of CML) appears to be non-hereditary in nature, meaning that numerous environmental factors may play a role in its development. Thankfully, pioneers in the world of CML have developed target-specific treatments that have transformed the way we look at treating cancer across the board.