What is leukemia?
Leukemia is a cancer Overview of Cancer Cancer is the out-of-control growth of cells in your body. Cells are the tiny building blocks of your body. Cells specialize in what they do. For example, your intestines have muscle cells to... read more of white blood cells. White blood cells have many jobs, including helping your body's immune system Overview of the Immune System The immune system is your body's defense system. It helps protect you from illness and infection. The immune system's job is to attack things that don’t belong in your body, including: Germs... read more fight off infection. White blood cells White Blood Cells The main components of blood include Plasma Red blood cells White blood cells Platelets read more form in your bone marrow, the spongy tissue inside your bones.
With leukemia, you have a very high white blood cell count. However, the cancerous white blood cells don't work properly, so you're likely to get infections. Those infections may be life-threatening.
Also, the cancerous white blood cells fill up your bone marrow so it can't make normal blood cells such as:
Red blood cells Red Blood Cells The main components of blood include Plasma Red blood cells White blood cells Platelets read more (causing anemia Overview of Anemia Anemia is not having enough red blood cells or hemoglobin. Red blood cells carry oxygen from your lungs to all of your other organs. Hemoglobin is the substance inside your red blood cells that... read more )
Normal white blood cells White Blood Cells The main components of blood include Plasma Red blood cells White blood cells Platelets read more (increasing the risk of infection)
Platelets Platelets The main components of blood include Plasma Red blood cells White blood cells Platelets read more (increasing the risk of bleeding)
There are many different types of white blood cells but only 2 main types of leukemia:
Lymphocytic leukemia: cancer of lymphocytes, which are one type of white blood cell
Myelogenous leukemia: cancer of all the other types of white blood cells
Lymphocytic and myelogenous leukemia can be acute or chronic:
Acute: cancer of young cells that spreads quickly and can cause death in 3 to 6 months if untreated
Chronic: cancer of mature cells that spreads more slowly
What is acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)?
Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), also called acute lymphoblastic leukemia, involves very young cells that should develop into lymphocytes but instead become cancerous. ALL is life-threatening.
ALL is the most common type of cancer in children, but it can happen at any age
ALL starts in bone marrow but can spread throughout the body and damage your organs
You may have symptoms like fever, weakness, and paleness
Doctors usually test your blood and bone marrow to find the cancer
About 8 in 10 children and 4 in 10 adults with ALL are cured (survive at least 5 years)
What are the symptoms of ALL?
Early symptoms may include:
Fever and heavy sweating at night (from infection or the leukemia)
Fast heartbeat or chest pain
Easy bruising and bleeding, such as nosebleeds or bleeding gums
Swollen lymph nodes Swollen Lymph Nodes Lymph nodes are part of your lymphatic system, which helps fight infection and cancer. Lymph nodes are pea-sized collection points that filter out germs and cells from lymph fluid. Lymph nodes... read more (pea-sized organs throughout the body that help fight off infection)
Later symptoms may include:
Bone or joint pain
Headaches, throwing up, and problems seeing, hearing, balancing, and using the muscles of your face
Pain or a "full" feeling in your upper belly (from a large liver and spleen)
Also, leukemia cells start to take over other organs, such as the liver, spleen, lymph nodes, testicles, and brain.
How can doctors tell if I have ALL?
To tell if you have ALL, doctors will:
Do blood tests
Other tests to see if ALL has spread to major organs may include:
CT (computed tomography) scan Computed Tomography A CT scan uses a large machine shaped like a large donut to take x-rays from many angles. A computer then takes the x-rays and creates many detailed pictures of the inside of your body. Each... read more or MRI Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) MRI is a test that uses a machine with a powerful magnet to make pictures of the inside of your body. A computer creates a series of detailed pictures. Each picture looks like a slice taken... read more (magnetic resonance imaging)
How do doctors treat ALL?
Doctors treat ALL with chemotherapy Chemotherapy Chemotherapy is a drug that destroys cancer cells. Chemotherapy works by shutting down cell growth. But since all cells in the body grow, chemotherapy drugs also destroy some normal cells and... read more . Chemotherapy, often called “chemo,” is one or more very strong medicines to kill your cancer cells. Other types of medicines and treatments are often used along with chemotherapy. The goal is cure. If you're cured, you have no cancer cells left in your body. If a cure isn't possible, then the goal is to decrease the number of cancer cells and keep that number low for as long as possible.
Chemotherapy may make you sicker before you get better. The medicines may:
Make you more likely to get infections
Make you need a blood transfusion
Make you throw up, feel weak and tired, or lose your hair
Treatment for ALL goes through 3 phases:
Induction involves getting several strong chemotherapy drugs. The goal of induction is to kill most or all of your cancer cells (called remission).
During induction, doctors may also give you treatments to kill any cancer cells in your brain:
Chemotherapy drugs in your spinal fluid (fluid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord)
Consolidation involves getting different chemotherapy drugs for a few months to keep the leukemia from coming back. Doctors may also give you:
Maintenance involves getting:
Chemotherapy for 2 to 3 years, sometimes in low amounts
Relapse is when a disease comes back after it has been successfully treated. Doctors consider ALL cured if it doesn’t relapse within 5 years. If your ALL comes back after treatment, doctors may do:
If treatment of relapse doesn’t work, you and your doctors may want to consider end-of-life care Choices to Make Before Death Seriously ill people and their families may feel swept along by the fatal illness and the various treatments, as if they have no control over the events. Some people seem to prefer this sense... read more (for example, hospice).