Leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells. In cancer, cells become abnormal and grow out of control. As the number of abnormal blood cells increase, the healthy blood cells are outnumbered. There are three main types of blood cells. Each has a distinct job:
Leukemia cells cannot do the job of normal blood cells. This causes many of the symptoms of leukemia. The disease starts in the bone marrow where blood cells are made. The most common types of leukemia in children are:
White Blood Cells
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Cancer occurs when cells in the body divide without control or order. Normally, cells divide in a regulated manner. If cells keep dividing uncontrollably when new cells are not needed, a mass of tissue forms. The term cancer refers to malignant growth of cells or tissue. These growths can invade nearby tissues. Cancer that has invaded nearby tissues can then spread to the blood and other parts of the body.
It is not clear exactly what causes these problems in the cells, but it is probably a combination of genetics and environment.
Factors that may increase your child's chance of leukemia include:
Leukemia may cause:
The doctor will ask about your child’s symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor will check for swelling of the liver, spleen, and lymph nodes. Leukemia can be diagnosed by identifying abnormal cells in the blood. Further testing is done to identify specific details and locations of the lymphocytic cells to determine treatment. Tests include:
Imaging tests may be done to look for spreading of the tumor, infections, or injuries caused by leukemia:
Symptoms created by leukemia may need to be treated first. Treatment may include:
Treatment is determined by the specific type of leukemia cell identified by testing. Treatment may one or a combination of the treatments below:
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body killing mostly cancer cells. Multiple are used at the same time, in various combinations. Chemotherapy may be used alone or with other treatments like radiation therapy.
Radiation therapy is directed to a specific area to kill the cancer cells. May be used during or after chemotherapy for cancer in specific locations, such as in the central nervous system.
High doses of radiation and/or chemotherapy can destroy immature healthy blood cells. Transplantation will help the body build healthy cells again if all bone marrow is destroyed. Transplantation may also be used in children with poor response to or inability to tolerate chemotherapy, poor-risk disease with high-risk of relapse, or after relapse. Treatment is given to remove all the existing bone marrow cells before new bone marrow or stem cells are given.
Transplant options may include bone marrow or stem cell transplantation.
American Cancer Society
The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
Canadian Cancer Society
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia/lymphoma. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116388/Acute-lymphoblastic-leukemia-lymphoma-ALL. Updated August 26, 2016. Accessed September 29, 2016.
Childhood cancers. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/types/childhood-cancers. Updated May 13, 2015. Accessed November 9, 2015.
Childhood leukemia. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003095-pdf.pdf. Accessed November 9, 2015.
Leukemia. Leukemia & Lymphoma Society website. Available at: http://www.lls.org/leukemia. Accessed November 9, 2015.
Leukemia in children. Boston Children's Hospital website. Available at: http://www.childrenshospital.org/conditions-and-treatments/conditions/leukemia. Accessed November 9, 2015.
Last reviewed November 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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