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Leukemia: Signs, Symptoms and Treatment

Mar 09, 2020
Child with cancer wearing headscarf, looking out the window with their mom

What Is Leukemia?

Blood cells are made in the bone marrow, which is like a factory for blood cells inside the bones. White blood cells are the cells that help your body fight infections. Leukemia is cancer of the white blood cells.

In order to fight infection, white blood cells go through a maturing or “training” process. In leukemia, the maturing process stops too soon and the immature cells grow out of control. These out-of-control, immature white blood cells are called “blasts” and they take over the bone marrow factory. Because the bone marrow factory has been taken over by these blasts, the bone marrow cannot make other healthy blood cells.

Is Leukemia Common in Children?

Leukemia is the most common cancer in children and young adults ages 0-19 years old. It makes up 25% of all cancer diagnoses in this age group each year.

What Causes a Child to Get Leukemia?

Many things can cause cells to stop maturing and grow out of control, but we have never found any one thing that causes leukemia. Scientists have tested many ideas about the possible causes, including food, power lines and different medications during pregnancy, but none of them have been found to cause leukemia. 

A very small number of children inherit an increased risk of cancer or a problem with the way their bone marrow works. Right now, we think about 5-10% of children with leukemia have an inherited risk of leukemia, but usually there is not a clear reason why, or any way to protect a child from getting leukemia.

What Are Some Common Signs and Symptoms of Leukemia?

There are three main types of blood cells; white blood cells help fight infection, red blood cells carry oxygen around your body, and platelets help stop bleeding and bruising. Most signs and symptoms of leukemia come from the bone marrow not being able to produce healthy blood cells. Children with leukemia can have symptoms related to any, or all, of the blood cell levels being lower than normal. They may have a fever that doesn’t go away, be extra tired or look pale, or bleed or bruise easily. Some children with leukemia develop swollen glands or a swollen belly, but not all.

How Is Leukemia Treated?

All leukemia is treated with chemotherapy, but how much, what kind, and for how long depends on what type of leukemia. Chemotherapy can be given in the outpatient clinic, or sometimes children stay in the hospital for several days at a time. Some chemotherapy drugs are given through an IV and some are taken by mouth.

Sometimes leukemia spreads into the spinal fluid, which is the clear fluid around the brain and spinal cord. If there are leukemia cells in the spinal fluid, some children receive radiation to treat it. Chemotherapy is also given into the spinal fluid with a spinal tap to treat any leukemia that might be there and to prevent it from spreading there. 

Can Childhood Leukemia Be Cured?

Children today have a much better chance of cure – or “remission” – than they did when we first started studying this disease in the 1950s. Today, the majority of children diagnosed go into remission and their disease never returns. However, certain types of leukemia are harder to get into remission and more likely to come back. We still cannot guarantee that every child will survive leukemia. Researchers around the world are working hard to find a way to cure every single child.

Who Should I Call If I’m Worried That My Child Might Have Leukemia?

Your regular pediatrician is the best place to start - they can perform a physical exam and order laboratory test.

Childhood Leukemia (ALL and AML)
For more information, click here.

Featured Expert

Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Susan Colace, MD
Hematology, Oncology and BMT

Susan Colace, MD, is the co-director of the Program for Personalized Medicine and Pharmacogenomics in Pediatric Hematology/Oncology/Blood and Marrow Transplant at Nationwide Children's Hospital and an assistant professor at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. Her research interests include pharmacogenomics, cancer genetics and chemotherapy toxicities. Clinically, she sees primarily oncology patients with a focus on leukemia and cancer predisposition syndromes.

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.