What is leukaemia?
Leukaemia is a cancer of the blood. In most cases it causes bone marrow to produce abnormal white blood cells, which can reduce our ability to fight off infections. Leukaemia falls broadly into one of two groups: acute leukaemia which develops rapidly and chronic leukaemia which develops over a long period of time.
Leukaemia more common in men than women
In 2011, there were around 4,200 newly diagnosed cases of leukaemia in men and around 3,000 in women. The incidence rates for leukaemia have increased from eight new cases per 100,000 men in 1971 to 13 new cases per 100,000 men in 2011. Incidence rates for women were eight new cases per 100,000 women in 2011, which increased from five new cases per 100,000 women in 1971. Like a lot of cancers, part of the increase in incidence will be due to better diagnostic tools and improvements in cancer registration.
Figure 1: Leukaemia incidence and mortality rates by sex in England from 1971−2011
As with incidence rates, mortality rates for leukaemia are higher in men than women, but unlike incidence rates, there has been less change over time. In 1971 there were six deaths per 100,000 men and four deaths per 100,000 women, while in 2011 there were seven deaths per 100,000 men and four deaths per 100,000 women.
Leukaemia is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in children
As with many other cancers, leukaemia is more common in older age groups. However, as we can see in Figure 2, there is a peak in the number of newly diagnosed cases of leukaemia among children aged one to four. In 2011, there were 176 newly diagnosed cases of leukaemia in this age group.
Leukaemia is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among children under 15, and accounted for 29% of all newly diagnosed cases of cancer in this age group in 2011. Leukaemia is the second most common cause of cancer death in children after brain cancer, and in 2011 accounted for 21% of all cancer deaths in this age group.
Figure 2: Registrations of newly diagnosed cases of leukaemia by age and sex in England in 2011
Increases in survival due to advances in treatment
Survival estimates for those diagnosed with leukaemia have trebled since 1971. For adults (aged 15–99 years) diagnosed with leukaemia between 2006 and 2010 and followed up to 2011, the five-year survival estimate was around 45% for both men and women (Office for National Statistics, 2012). In comparison, among those diagnosed between 1971 and 1975 and followed up to 1995, only 15% of men and 14% women survived for five years or more (Coleman, et al., 1999). Improvements in survival rates are due, in part, to the development of and improvements in chemotherapy treatments. Previously there were no effective treatments for leukaemia, unlike with solid organ tumours, which could be surgically removed (Coleman et al. 1999).
Coleman MP, Babb P, Damiecki P, Grosclaude P, Honjo S, Jones J, et al. (1999). Cancer survival trends in England and Wales, 1971-1995: deprivation and NHS region. London: Stationery Office.
Office for National Statistics (2012). Cancer survival in England: patients diagnosed 2006-2010 and followed up to 2011.
These statistics were compiled and analysed by the Cancer and End of Life Care Analysis team in the Life Events and Population Sources Division. If you’d like to find out more about our cancer statistics you can read our annual reference volume and see further stories, for example on malignant melanoma skin cancer.
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