What is childhood leukemia?
The term leukemia refers to cancers of the white blood cells (also called leukocytes or WBCs). When someone has leukemia, large numbers of abnormal white blood cells are produced in the bone marrow. These abnormal white cells crowd the bone marrow and flood the bloodstream, but they cannot perform their proper role of protecting the body against disease because they are defective.
As leukemia progresses, the cancer interferes with the body’s production of other types of blood cells, including red blood cells and platelets. This results in anemia (low numbers of red cells) and bleeding problems, in addition to the increased risk of infection caused by white cell abnormalities.
In general, leukemias are classified into acute (rapidly developing) and chronic (slowly developing) forms. In children, most leukemias are acute.
Acute childhood leukemias are also divided into acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML), depending on whether specific white blood cells called lymphyocytes or myelocytes, which are linked to immune defenses, are involved.
How common is childhood leukemia?
Leukemia is the most common cancer in children and teens, accounting for almost 1 out of 3 cancers. Most childhood leukemias are acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). Most of the remaining cases are acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Chronic leukemias are rare in children. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of childhood leukemia?
The common symptoms of childhood leukemia are:
Because their infection-fighting white blood cells are defective, kids with leukemia may have more viral or bacterial infections than usual. They also may become anemic because leukemia affects the bone marrow’s production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. This makes them appear pale, and they may become abnormally tired and short of breath while playing.
Children with leukemia might bruise and bleed very easily, experience frequent nosebleeds, or bleed for an unusually long time after even a minor cut because leukemia destroys the bone marrow’s ability to produce clot-forming platelets.
Other symptoms of leukemia can include:
pain in the bones or joints, sometimes causing a limp
swollen lymph nodes (sometimes called swollen glands) in the neck, groin, or elsewhere
an abnormally tired feeling
fevers with no other symptoms
abdominal pain (caused by abnormal blood cells building up in organs like the kidneys, liver, or spleen)
Occasionally, the spread of leukemia to the brain can cause headaches, seizures, balance problems, or abnormal vision. If ALL spreads to the lymph nodes inside the chest, the enlarged mass can crowd the trachea (windpipe) and important blood vessels, leading to breathing problems, and interfere with blood flow to and from the heart.
There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.
What causes childhood leukemia?
Doctors don’t know exactly what causes most cases of childhood leukemia. But certain things may raise the chances of getting it.
What increases my risk for childhood leukemia?
There are many risk factors for childhood leukemia, such as:
An inherited disorder such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Down syndrome, or Klinefelter syndrome
An inherited immune system problem such as ataxia telangiectasia
A brother or sister with leukemia, especially an identical twin
A history of being exposed to high levels of radiation, chemotherapy, or chemicals such as benzene (a solvent)
A history of immune system suppression, such as for an organ transplant
Diagnosis & treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How is childhood leukemia diagnosed?
To diagnose childhood leukemia, the doctor will take a thorough medical history and do a physical exam. Tests are used to diagnose childhood leukemia as well as classify its type.
Initial tests may include:
Blood tests to measure the number of blood cells and see how they appear
Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy, usually taken from the pelvic bone, to confirm a diagnosis of leukemia
Lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, to check for spread of leukemia cells in the fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord
A pathologist examines cells from the blood tests under a microscope. This specialist also checks bone marrow samples for the number of blood-forming cells and fat cells.
Other tests may be done to help determine which type of leukemia your child may have. These tests also help the doctors know how likely the leukemia is to respond to treatment.
Certain tests may be repeated later to see how your child responds to treatment.
How is childhood leukemia treated?
Have an honest talk with your child’s doctor and other members of the cancer care team about the best options for your child. Treatment depends mainly upon the type of leukemia as well as other things.
The survival rates for most types of childhood leukemia have gone up over time. And treatment at special centers for children and teens has the advantages of specialized care. Childhood cancers tend to respond to treatment better than adult cancers do, and children’s bodies often tolerate treatment better.
Before cancer treatment begins, sometimes a child needs treatment to address illness complications. For example, changes in blood cells can lead to infections or severe bleeding and may affect the amount of oxygen reaching the body’s tissues. Treatment may involve antibiotics, blood transfusions, or other measures to fight infection.
Chemotherapy is the main treatment for childhood leukemia. Your child will get anticancer drugs by mouth, or into a vein or the spinal fluid. To keep leukemia from returning, there may be maintenance therapy in cycles over a period of 2 or 3 years.
Sometimes, targeted therapy is also used. This therapy targets specific parts of cancer cells, working differently than standard chemotherapy. Effective for certain types of childhood leukemia, targeted therapy often has less severe side effects.
Other types of treatment may include radiation therapy. This uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. It can also help prevent or treat the spread of leukemia to other parts of the body. Surgery is rarely an option to treat childhood leukemia.
If standard treatment is likely to be less effective, a stem cell transplant may be the best option. It involves a transplant of blood-forming stem cells after whole body radiation combined with high-dose chemotherapy happens first to destroy the child’s bone marrow.
The FDA has approved a type of gene therapy for children and young adults up to age 25 whose B-cell ALL doesn’t get better with other treatments. Scientists are working on a version of this treatment for people over 25 and for other kinds of cancer.
CAR T-cell therapy uses some of your own immune cells, known as T cells, to treat your cancer. Doctors take the cells out of your blood and change them by adding new genes. The new T cells can work better to find and kill cancer cells.
Lifestyle changes & home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage childhood leukemia?
Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Childhood Leukemia. https://www.webmd.com/cancer/lymphoma/childhood-leukemia-symptoms-treatments#3. Accessed December 27, 2017.
Leukemia. http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/cancer-leukemia.html#kha_51. Accessed December 27, 2017.
Leukemia in Children. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/leukemia-in-children.html. Accessed December 27, 2017.
Review Date: December 27, 2017 | Last Modified: December 27, 2017