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Symptoms of chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML)

Men and women discussing Chronic myeloid leukaemia

This page tells you about the symptoms of chronic myeloid leukaemia. There is information about

 

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Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) symptoms

About 1 in 4 people with chronic myeloid leukaemia don't have any symptoms at all. Their leukaemia may be diagnosed when they have a routine blood test for something else. When symptoms occur they tend to be mild at first and get worse slowly. You may feel as if you have the flu.

Common symptoms of CML

The symptoms listed below can occur in CML but can also be caused by other illnesses

  • Frequent infections
  • Weight loss
  • Tiredness, breathlessness or looking pale due to a shortage of red blood cells (anaemia)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sweating at night
  • Abnormal bruising or bleeding
  • Swollen lymph glands
  • Abdominal discomfort or indigestion due to an enlarged spleen
  • Headaches
  • Bone pain

Less common symptoms

  • Eyesight changes
  • Swollen, painful joints
  • A painful erection in men that won’t go (priapism) – this can cause permanent damage to the penis so you need to get medical attention urgently
  • Changes in kidney function

If you have any of these symptoms you must have them checked by your GP. But remember, they can be caused by other conditions. For example, many of us have bones that ache as we get older. Most people with these symptoms will not have CML.

 

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Common symptoms of chronic myeloid leukaemia

About 1 in 4 people with CML have no symptoms at all when they are diagnosed. Their CML is picked up on a routine blood test. And many of the symptoms we list below are more likely to be caused by other illnesses. When symptoms occur they are usually mild at first and gradually get worse. They may include

Getting infections more often than usual

Due to a shortage of healthy white blood cells to fight off infections, the infections may happen more often, may be more severe and may take longer to clear than usual.   

Weight loss

CML can use up energy that your body would otherwise use or store. So you may lose weight, even if you think you are eating normally. If you have a very enlarged spleen, you may feel full more quickly than usual because the spleen is squashing your stomach. This may make you eat less and lose weight.

Tiredness and looking pale

It is common for people with CML to feel very tired. This is because your bone marrow isn't able to make enough red blood cells. They are crowded out by the large numbers of abnormal white blood cells. A shortage of red blood cells is called anaemia. This can make you feel breathless and tired.

Swollen lymph glands

Abnormal white blood cells collecting in the lymph glands may cause swelling.

Abnormal bruising or bleeding

Low levels of platelets in the blood can cause bleeding or bruising. You may find that you bruise more easily than usual or with no obvious cause. You may also have bleeding from the gums or nose. More rarely people notice a fine rash of dark red spots (called purpura). Some people also have blood in their urine or stools.

Abdominal discomfort

The spleen is an organ on the left side of your body, just under your ribs. In CML it can become swollen and larger than normal. This can cause discomfort or pain in your tummy (abdomen). Your doctor may be able to feel your enlarged spleen.

Diagram showing the position of the spleen

A poor appetite

Some people find that they gradually lose their appetite. It can be due to the swollen spleen pressing on the stomach.

Sweating at night

Some people have sudden onsets of a high temperature (fever) and sweating. This can occur more often at night.

Headaches

If you have a very high white blood cell count, the extra cells can clog the smallest blood vessels in the brain. This can cause headaches in some people.

Bone pain

Sometimes people with chronic leukaemia get aches in their bones. This is because there are leukaemia cells building up in the bone marrow, increasing pressure on nerves and causing pain.

 

Less common symptoms

These symptoms may also occur but are usually in the later stages of CML.

Eyesight changes

If you have a very high white blood cell count, the extra cells can clog the smallest blood vessels in the eyes. This can cause eye problems in some people with chronic myeloid leukaemia.

Swollen, painful joints

Some people get swollen joints due to a build up of body salts in the tissues.

Persistent painful erection

Doctors call this priapism. It is a rare symptom that can happen in men with CML. Priapism is an erection that won't go down and can become very painful. It is caused by the abnormally high number of white blood cells in the blood blocking up tiny blood vessels in the penis. A priapism is an emergency. If you have persistent painful erection then you need medical attention. An erection that lasts too long can cause permanent damage to the penis.

Changes in kidney function

Some people with advanced stages of CML have damage to their kidneys.

 

If you have these symptoms

If you have any of these symptoms you must have them checked by your GP. But remember, they can be caused by other conditions. For example, many of us have bones that ache as we get older. Most people with these symptoms will not have chronic myeloid leukaemia.

 

More information

The earlier a cancer is picked up, the easier it is to treat it and the more likely the treatment is to be successful. So it is important that you go to your GP as soon as possible if you notice worrying symptoms.

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Updated: 4 November 2014