Leukemia is cancer of the blood. It’s the most common form of cancer in childhood. The cancer cells grow in bone marrow and go into the blood. The bone marrow is the soft, spongy center of some bones. It makes blood cells. When a child has leukemia, the bone marrow makes abnormal blood cells that don’t mature. The abnormal cells are usually white blood cells (leukocytes). The bone marrow also makes fewer healthy cells. The abnormal cells reproduce very quickly. They don’t work the same as healthy cells. A child has symptoms when he or she has more abnormal cells and less normal cells.
The types of blood cells include:
There are different types of leukemia in children. Most types are either acute or chronic. Acute develops quickly, over days or weeks. Chronic develops more slowly, over months or years. Some of the types of leukemia that occur in children include:
The risk factors for childhood leukemia include:
The symptoms depend on many factors. The cancer may be in the bone marrow, blood, and other tissue and organs. Other tissue and organs may be affected. These may include the lymph nodes, liver, spleen, thymus gland, brain, spinal cord, gums, and skin.
Symptoms can occur a bit differently in each child. They can include:
The symptoms of leukemia can be like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees a healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
Your child's healthcare provider will ask many questions about your child's symptoms. He or she will examine your child. Your child's healthcare provider may recommend blood tests and other tests. A complete blood count (CBC) provides the number of red blood cells, different types of white blood cells, and platelets. If the results are abnormal, your child's healthcare provider may recommend that your child see a pediatric cancer specialist (pediatric oncologist). The oncologist may want your child to have additional tests including:
Your child may first need to be treated for low blood counts, bleeding, or infections. Your child may receive:
Treatment will depend on the stage and other factors. Leukemia can be treated with any of the below:
There are 3 stages in the treatment of acute leukemia. They include:
The bone marrow can start making abnormal cells again (relapse) during any stage of treatment. This can occur months or years after treatment has ended.
With any cancer, how well a child is expected to recover (prognosis) varies. Keep in mind:
A child may have complications from the tumor or from treatment. They may also be short-term or long-term.
Treatment may have many side effects. Some side effects may be minor. Some may be serious and even life-threatening. Your child may take medicines to help prevent or lessen side effects. You’ll be given instructions about what you can do at home.
Possible complications of leukemia can include:
Another possible complication is superior vena cava syndrome. The superior vena cava is the large blood vessel that supplies blood to the upper body. If your child has an enlarged thymus gland in the chest, it can press on the superior vena cava. It may cause very serious symptoms and be life-threatening.
Possible long-term complications from the leukemia or the treatment can include:
A child with leukemia needs ongoing care. Your child will be seen by oncologists and other healthcare providers to treat any late effects of treatment and to watch for signs or symptoms of the cancer returning. Your child will be checked with imaging tests and other tests. And your child may see other healthcare providers for problems from the cancer or from treatment.
You can help your child manage his or her treatment in many ways. For example:
Call the healthcare provider if your child has:
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider: