What is leukemia?

Leukemia is a blood cancer. Although rare, it is the most common form of cancer in children. Childhood leukemia can occur at any age but is most common in children ages 2 to 6 and affects slightly more boys than girls.

Leukemia starts in the bone marrow, which makes the cells that develop into blood cells. When a child has leukemia, their bone marrow makes a large number of abnormal cells. These abnormal cells are most often white blood cells but they can also be other types of blood cells. The abnormal cells build up and make it difficult for the healthy cells to work correctly.

There are several types of leukemia in children:

  • Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is by far the most common type of childhood leukemia. It is a type of acute leukemia. This means it develops quickly and needs treatment right away.
  • Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is also a type of acute leukemia that progresses quickly. It is the second most common type of childhood leukemia after ALL.
  • Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) is a type of chronic leukemia. This means it develops slowly. CML is very rare in children.
  • Juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia (JMML) is a type of leukemia that is not acute or chronic. It is most commonly diagnosed in young children around age 2.

What are the signs and symptoms of leukemia?

The common symptoms of childhood leukemia are similar to those of many other conditions, so it’s important to have your child diagnosed by a health professional.  Symptoms of childhood leukemia may include:

  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Fever, with or without infection
  • Feeling cold
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Loss of appetite (or weight loss)
  • Having many infections
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Shortness of breath
  • Bone or joint pain
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, stomach, underarm or groin area

What causes leukemia?

There is not a known cause for childhood leukemia. Some research suggests that leukemia may be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, but this research is still ongoing.  

How is leukemia treated?

Your child’s treatment for leukemia can depend on what type they have, their age and overall health. These may include:

  • Chemotherapy is the most common treatment for leukemia. It is used to kill cancer cells throughout the body. The chemotherapy may be taken by mouth or injected into the bloodstream. It can be used alone or with other treatments.
  • Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells or stop the cancer from growing. It may be used in some cases of leukemia.
  • Targeted drug therapy attacks specific cancer cells directly and usually cause less damage to other cells in the body than chemotherapy or radiation. Targeted therapy is often used to treat CML, and sometimes used to treat ALL.
  • Immunotherapy is a newer type of treatment that uses your child’s immune system to help fight the cancer. CAR T-cell therapy is an example of immunotherapy.
  • Bone marrow transplant (also called a stem cell transplant) is sometimes used to treat leukemia. It uses high doses of chemotherapy to damage the bone marrow. Then healthy stem cells from your child’s own bone marrow, or from a donor, are placed back into the blood.
  • Clinical trials test new types of cancer treatments. Ask your child’s doctor if they are eligible for any clinical trials to treat leukemia.

Your care team at Arkansas Children’s is experienced in treating all types of childhood leukemia, and will work with you to create the best treatment plan for your child’s leukemia.

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