Not all high white blood cell counts indicate leukemia, of course. A high count could indicate something much less serious, such as a bacterial infection.
The count is important to leukemia patients because it helps determine the stage of cancer and the effectiveness of treatment. For example, after chemotherapy, a white blood cell count might be ordered to see whether the chemicals had any effect on the cancer cells.
Cancer of the blood cells is leukemia. It is grouped by what type of white blood cell it affects and how quickly it progresses. When lymphocytes are affected, the cause is lymphocytic or lymphoblastic leukemia; myelocytes are involved in myelogenous leukemia. Either can be acute, worsening quickly and making the patient sick right away, or chronic, worsening over a long time. It might be years before the patient notices any symptoms.
The most common leukemias in adults are acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). In children, the most common form is acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), although they also might have AML or various myeloid leukemias. There also are less common types such as hairy cell leukemia.
In acute myelogenous leukemia, the body makes a large number of myelocytes that cannot fight infection very well. As they build up in the blood and bone marrow, they crowd out healthy blood cells, causing anemia, infections and easy bleeding.
Symptoms include weakness, night sweats, fever, and pain or a feeling of fullness below the ribs. Adults might have unexplained weight loss, while children are prone to easy bruising and bone or joint pain.