Anemia and leukemia are both conditions that affect the blood. There is no evidence that anemia can cause leukemia. However, people with leukemia are more likely to develop anemia.

This could be because leukemia, a form of blood cancer, causes anemia, which involves a reduction in red blood cells. Moreover, some leukemia treatments also cause anemia.

This article focuses on two conditions: leukemia and anemia, which both affect the blood. After exploring the link between leukemia and anemia, this article will compare their types, causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

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A person develops cancer when some of their cells begin to grow unchecked. As a 2021 article explains, leukemia is a type of cancer that can affect cells in the blood and bone marrow.

While anemia is not a form of cancer, it can also affect the blood. A 2021 article describes anemia as a condition in which someone’s blood contains fewer red blood cells than it should.

There are different types of leukemia, and a common symptom is the rapid production of atypical white blood cells. These cells are not capable of fighting infection and impair the ability of the bone marrow to produce healthy cells, such as red blood cells. This can result in anemia.

Conversely, no current evidence suggests anemia can lead to leukemia. However, anemia and leukemia share links in other ways.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) notes that certain leukemia treatments, such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy, can lead to anemia in some people.

For example, evidence notes that low red blood cell counts are a common side effect of many leukemia treatments, particularly for individuals who require high-dose treatment.

While anemia and leukemia are very different conditions, they share a core similarity: they both affect the blood. But leukemia is a cancer, which involves unchecked cell growth.

In contrast, anemia involves a lack of red blood cells. That said, leukemia does remain a risk factor for anemia.

The ACS explains that leukemia can present in many forms, including the below.

Acute vs. chronic leukemia

A person has acute leukemia when it affects younger, less mature cells. Chronic leukemia, by contrast, affects older cells. The condition heavily affects these older cells, despite being more mature. Additionally, acute leukemias also progress quickly, while chronic leukemias tend to develop slowly.

Myeloid vs. lymphocytic leukemia

This refers to the effect on the different types of blood cells. A person has lymphocytic leukemia when their cancer affects white blood cells known as lymphocytes. Myeloid leukemia instead affects myeloid cells, such as white blood cells other than lymphocytes, red blood cells, and platelets.

As a 2021 review explains, there are two main forms of anemia: hyperproliferative and hypoproliferative.

Hyperproliferative anemia

A person has this form of anemia when their red blood cells are lost or destroyed too quickly.

Hypoproliferative anemia

An individual has this form of anemia when their bone marrow does not produce enough red blood cells.

Because leukemia begins in the bone marrow, it can lead to hypoproliferative leukemia.

The exact causes of leukemia remain unknown and may vary with leukemia subtypes. However, scientists do know that certain things can make leukemia more likely. These risk factors for the condition include:

  • radiation exposure
  • exposure to chemotherapy from a previous cancer treatment
  • exposure to benzene
  • some viral infections, such as the Epstein-Barr virus
  • some genetic syndromes, such as Down syndrome

Anemia also has many causes, which can include leukemia and some leukemia treatments. However, evidence notes that the most common cause in the general population is iron deficiency, which accounts for around 50% of all cases.

However, scientists have also identified many other causes of anemia, which can include:

  • certain infectious diseases
  • issues with the immune system
  • sickle cell disease
  • blood loss
  • nutritional deficiencies
  • absorption issues

Although anemia can be asymptomatic, this condition can significantly affect a person’s life. Evidence states that anemia symptoms can vary in severity, depending on a person’s red blood cell count. These symptoms can include:

  • tiredness or lethargy
  • weakness
  • restlessness
  • a reduced ability to exercise
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • pale skin
  • pica, where people wish to eat nonedible items
  • a fast or irregular heartbeat
  • cold hands or feet

Leukemia can cause a person to experience symptoms of anemia. Additionally, while symptoms can vary by type, a 2021 article lists the following as symptoms of leukemia:

  • bleeding
  • bruising
  • fevers
  • skeletal problems
  • lymphadenopathy
  • enlarged liver or spleen
  • frequent infections
  • fatigue
  • night sweats

Diagnosing leukemia can differ depending on the type and symptoms a person is experiencing. Typically, a doctor can diagnose the condition after analyzing an individual’s blood. Therefore, they may order several tests to help with diagnosis, which may include:

  • a complete blood count
  • peripheral blood smear
  • flow cytometry
  • a bone marrow biopsy
  • a liver function test
  • a complete metabolic panel

Similarly, diagnosing anemia can also differ depending on the type and the underlying cause. It usually involves taking a blood sample and measuring for a protein in the blood called hemoglobin.

Some guidelines suggest that the normal hemoglobin range for females is 12–16 grams per deciliter of blood (g/dl) and 14 to 17.4 g/dL for males. However, many factors can affect hemoglobin levels. Usually, values lower than the above may indicate anemia.

Additionally, other tests may include:

  • complete blood count
  • ultrasounds
  • X-rays
  • CT scans
  • endoscopy
  • colonoscopy
  • laparotomy

A 2021 article states that treatment for leukemia can vary from individual to individual, depending on the leukemia type and any other health conditions a person has. That said, chemotherapy remains a highly common treatment option. Doctors may also recommend:

  • stem cell transplants
  • monoclonal antibodies
  • radiation therapy

Anemia treatments feature a similar variability of approaches. Scientists understand that a person’s anemia needs treatment that focuses on its underlying cause. For instance, doctors may prescribe iron supplements if someone has the condition because they do not get enough dietary iron.

The ACS notes that iron supplements may also be helpful if cancer is causing the anemia. Other anemia treatments for people with cancer include red blood cell transfusions and erythropoiesis-stimulating agents — drugs that promote red blood cell growth.

Anemia and leukemia are both conditions that affect the blood. Moreover, people with the latter have an increased risk of developing anemia. However, anemia cannot cause leukemia, and these conditions remain different in several important respects.