One of the most common types of childhood cancer, leukemia is the cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
The body contains three types of blood cells—red cells which carry oxygen, white cells which fight off infection and platelets that aid in blood clotting and bleeding.
Leukemia develops when the bone marrow starts producing white blood cells that do not mature properly. These cells start to crowd out the healthy cells, interfering in normal cell production. Leukemia is most commonly diagnosed in children aged 2-6, although adults are often diagnosed, as well.
The major types of juvenile leukemia are:
- Acute lymphoblastic leukemia
- Acute myeloid leukemia
- Myelodysplastic syndromes
- Chronic myeloid leukemia
- Juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia
Signs and symptoms
Leukemia can be detected in a number of ways. The following symptoms could lead to a positive diagnosis for leukemia:
- Bleeding and/or bruising
- Recurring infections
- Bone and joint pain
- Abdominal pain
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Difficulty breathing
A doctor can perform a number of different tests to determine a leukemia diagnosis. One is a physical test, in which the physician checks for swollen lymph nodes, spleen or liver. In most cases, blood and bone marrow samples are also drawn from the patient and examined under a microscope.
Acute leukemia is commonly treated with chemotherapy, which is usually administered in stages:
- Induction: Affected cells in the blood and bone marrow are killed to encourage remission.
- Consolidation: Any remaining leukemia cells are killed. If this is not done, the patient may experience a relapse.
- Maintenance: Treatment continues to prevent any additional leukemia cells from reappearing. During this stage, lower doses of chemotherapy are usually administered.
If the leukemia has spread to the brain or spinal cord, a type of chemotherapy called intrathecal chemotherapy is a treatment option. In this method, the chemotherapy is injected directly into the spine.
Radiation is another common treatment option for leukemia patients, particularly those whose illness has spread to the brain or spinal cord.
Stem-cell transplants, in which healthy blood cells from a donor are injected into the affected patient’s bone marrow is another option for leukemia patients. Due to the painful nature of this surgical procedure, doctors often offer the transplant option as a late-stage form of treatment.