Can Leukemia Cause a Stroke?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Leukemia is a blood cancer that affects white blood cells. Because of this, leukemia is a risk factor for infections. However, your white blood cells arent the only blood cells leukemia attacks.

Although its true that infection is the leading cause of death across all types of leukemia, leukemia can also lead to other severe complications, including strokes. Read on to learn more about the complex relationship between these two conditions.

Stroke risk factors in people with leukemia

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People with leukemia are at risk of stroke for several reasons. Stroke is more common in people who have acute myeloid leukemia (AML), but other types of leukemia can also increase the risk of stroke.

There are a few primary reasons for this increased risk of stroke. One reason is that leukemia is a blood cancer. It affects your bodys blood cells and can impair your bodys normal clotting function. This can lead to blood clots that can block the flow of blood and oxygen to your brain and result in a stroke.

Leukemia complications can also cause blood to have trouble clotting leading to excess blood and fluid in the brain and hemorrhagic strokes as well.

Some leukemia treatments can also increase your risk of stroke. These include:

  • Ibrutinib. Its often used to treat chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). It can increase the risk of bleeding and can lead to a type of irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation. These factors can both increase your risk of a stroke.
  • All-trans retinoic acid and arsenic trioxide. These two drugs are often used together to treat AML. Theyre known to increase the risk of developing an extremely high white blood cell count, called hyperleukocytosis. This condition increases your risk of stroke.
  • L-asparaginase. Its used as a treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and is effective at preventing relapses. However, it can increase the risk of clotting and strokes.

Does leukemia cause strokes?

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Leukemia can cause strokes. This can happen because leukemia also attacks your platelets, the blood cells that control how much your blood clots or bleeds. When that clotting happens inside your brain, it can lead to a stroke.

It can also lead to strokes caused by hemorrhages, or bleeding in your brain.

Can leukemia cause paralysis?

Paralysis isnt a common complication of leukemia, but it can occur. Leukemia can spread to your central nervous system (CNS). In some very rare cases, this can do enough damage to the body to cause paralysis.

Acute myeloid leukemia and stroke

People with AML have an even greater risk of stroke. A 2018 review indicates that among hospitalized people, those with AML are 50 times more likely to have a stroke than those without AML.

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Among people who have strokes, people with AML are five times more likely not to survive. Research into the link between AML and strokes is still being done.

In addition to the increased risk of both clotting and bleeding caused by AML, researchers think factors such as the average age and high frequency of infections in people with AML could contribute to this increased risk.

Can leukemia spread to the brain?

Leukemia can spread to your central nervous system and build up in the fluid around your brain.

Leukemia cells can also spread directly to your brain. This is known as metastatic leukemia. It would indicate very advanced and widespread leukemia.

What does leukemia do to the brain?

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Leukemia cells that spread to the fluid around your brain or to your brain cause symptoms that can be very difficult to manage. These include:

  • vision problems
  • headaches
  • balance problems
  • facial numbness
  • weakness
  • seizures
Can leukemia cause a brain bleed?

Leukemia can cause easier bleeding and bruising. This happens because your body is unable to make enough platelets. People with advanced leukemia, especially AML, are also at high risk of internal bleeding. This can include brain bleeding.

Bleeding in your brain is called an intracranial hemorrhage. Symptoms include:

  • severe headache
  • severe neck pain and stiffness
  • vomiting
  • confusion

An intracranial hemorrhage is a medical emergency. Its important to call emergency services like 911 and get medical help right away if you experience these symptoms.

How to prevent strokes when you have leukemia

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Its a good idea to talk with your healthcare team if youre concerned about stroke. They can talk about the medications youre taking and help you understand your current risk of stroke.

Your healthcare team can also let you know important information that can play a big role in your stroke risks, such as your latest platelet and white blood cell count.

Talk with your doctor if youre uncomfortable about any medication youre taking because of the risk of stroke. They might be able to offer another option or provide additional treatments to reduce the increased risk of stroke from these medications.

For instance, your doctor might prescribe:

  • anticoagulants to help stop clotting
  • medication to keep your white blood cell count under a safe limit
  • anthracycline chemotherapy drugs as part of your treatment to reduce the risk of stroke

Outlook of strokes for people with leukemia

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People with leukemia who experience strokes have a poorer outlook than people without leukemia who experience strokes.

A 2018 review found that people with AML have a 37 percent risk of death after a stroke. Conversely, the death rate for all people admitted with a stroke is 7 percent. Theres not exact data about the survival outcomes of people with other leukemia types who experience strokes.

But as improvements to both stroke and leukemia treatment continue to be developed, its likely these statistics will improve.

Research is already being done to find ways to help reduce the risk of stroke for people with AML. Additional research will continue to increase survival statistics.

Living with leukemia
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Leukemia is a condition that can change your life. Treatments can be frightening, time consuming, stressful, and costly. Its important to have support.

For guidance and community, consider checking out the following groups:

  • The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society hosts support groups throughout the country. Your local chapter can help you find local resources and build a community support system.
  • The Blood Cancers Patient Support Group is an online support group for people with blood cancer whod rather chat online.
  • The National Cancer Institute hosts a variety of online support groups. You can search their database to find the one that best fits your needs.
  • CancerCenter Case Managers can be reached by calling 800-813-4673 to receive free case management from a fully licensed social worker.
  • The American Cancer Society offers free support and resource connection 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can call 800-227-2345 or schedule a video chat for face-to-face support.
  • The American Stroke Association can also help find local support groups for people have experienced a stroke.

Takeaway

Leukemia is a blood cancer that can lead to strokes and other serious complications.

Strokes caused by leukemia occur because leukemia attacks your blood platelets that control clotting and bleeding. A blood clot in your brain can lead to a stroke, and a bleed in your brain can lead to hemorrhage. Some leukemia treatments can also increase the risk of stroke.

Talk with your healthcare professional if youre concerned about your stroke risk. They can help you understand your specific risk and discuss options to reduce the risk and prevent a stroke.

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