Leukemia is the most common type of childhood cancer.
In the U.S., an average of 3,718 children were diagnosed with leukemia every year from 2012-2016.
Thankfully, the survival rates for childhood leukemia have increased dramatically over the past several decades. Most cases of childhood leukemia are acute and spread very quickly.
The most common type of leukemia in children is acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL).
Leukemia is a blood cancer. Most leukemia begins with cells that would usually become white blood cells. Normally, your body makes the correct amount of white blood cells needed to fight infections and carry out other important body functions.
Children with leukemia produce too many white blood cells, and these cells dont function properly. The cells grow too quickly, crowding out red blood cells and platelets.
Most children with leukemia have an acute form of it. Acute leukemia progresses very quickly in the body and needs immediate treatment. The two types of leukemia most common in children are:
While ALL and AML account for almost all cases of childhood leukemia, children can sometimes develop other leukemia types. Rare types of leukemia in children include:
The symptoms of leukemia in children can be hard to spot at first. Many symptoms are commonly seen in other, less serious, conditions. However, since childhood leukemia spreads quickly, getting medical attention as soon as possible is very important.
If your child has any of the symptoms below, especially if theyve had them for more than 2 weeks, its time to make an appointment.
Symptoms that of leukemia in children include:
Keep in mind that not all children will display all or even most of these symptoms. Additionally, most, if not all, of these symptoms are more often caused by other conditions.
So if a child has any of these symptoms, it doesnt automatically mean they definitely have leukemia. But it does mean they should see a medical provider.
Your child might have several medical appointments and tests done if a doctor suspects leukemia.
At a first appointment, a doctor will ask you more about your childs symptoms and about how long theyve had them. The doctor will also want to know about any important family medical history, such as a family member whos had or has cancer.
The doctor will also do a physical exam to look for signs of leukemia like paleness, bruises, swollen lymph nodes, or a swollen stomach.
If your childs medical history or physical exam suggests leukemia, the doctor may then order tests to see if leukemia is causing your childs symptoms.
Tests your child might have include:
A CBC is a lab test done with a standard blood draw. The test looks at the ratio of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets in the blood. This is important because children with leukemia normally have too many white blood cells.
A blood smear is a lab test that allows doctors to look at blood under a microscope. Theyll examine the blood for cells that look abnormal.
A biopsy and aspiration is done by inserting a long needle into a bone to extract liquid bone marrow cells and a small piece of bone.
The area will be numbed, and children are generally given medicine to help them relax or even sleep during the test. This allows doctors to analyze cancerous white blood cells produced in the bone marrow.
Also called a spinal tap, this test will be done if the doctor suspects there are leukemia cells in the fluid around the spinal cord and brain.
This test involves a needle being inserted in between the spinal bones to extra fluid. Children are often given medicine that allows them to sleep through this test.
In some cases, a doctor might order imaging tests, like x-rays and ultrasounds. These tests can help doctors get a closer look at a childs lymph nodes or at organs that might be affected by cancer like the liver, spleen, kidney, or lungs.
Researchers arent sure what causes leukemia in children. In many cases, children diagnosed with leukemia have no risk factors and the cause of their leukemia is unknown.
Researchers do know that changes to the DNA inside bone marrow cells cause the disruption that leads to leukemia. Multiple chromosomal abnormalities can lead to this DNA change.
Chromosomal abnormalities can be inherited, but most often occur during the childs lifetime.
More research is still being done to determine if there are more exact causes of leukemia in children. Some researchers think a combination of inherited genetics and risk factors might be the cause in at least some cases. But this hasnt been proven.
Currently, theres no known cause of most cases of leukemia in children.
Since scientists arent sure what causes leukemia in children, theres no way to prevent it.
Some researchers are looking into ways to improve immune-suppressing medicines or chemotherapy treatments so that they dont increase the risk of leukemia. But at the moment theyre the safest and most effective treatments available.
Some research suggests reducing exposure to things that might cause an increased risk of leukemia. This might include:
It can be a stressful, overwhelming, and frightening time when your child is diagnosed with childhood leukemia. You can try some of the suggestions below for help and support:
Childhood leukemia is treated by doctors who specialize in cancer in children, called pediatric oncologists. The oncologist will develop a treatment plan based on the type of cancer your child has and on how far its progressed.
In some cases, children might need treatment for symptoms before cancer treatment can begin. For example, a child with a bacterial infection will likely need antibiotic treatment before beginning their leukemia treatment.
The primary treatment for all types of childhood leukemia is chemotherapy. In some cases, children might also need radiation, surgery, or medication. The exact course of treatment depends on the type of leukemia your child has.
Children with ALL receive chemotherapy treatment in three phases:
Children with AML needed to be treated through an inpatient program at a hospital or cancer treatment center. Theyll receive chemotherapy in two phases:
Theres no maintenance phase for children with AML.
The type of leukemia a child has also has an impact on the outlook. Both major types of childhood leukemia have seen a huge increase in survival rates over the past several decades as doctors have gotten better at treating leukemia.
However, even though both types now have much higher survival rates, theres a difference in the outlook.
Based on the most recent research (2009-2015), the overall 5-year survival rate for ALL in children is 91.9 percent. The overall 5-year survival rate for AML in children is 68.7 percent.
While cancer is rare in childhood, leukemia is the most common type of cancer that affects children. Most children develop acute leukemias.
The exact treatment and outlook depend on the type of leukemia and on how far its progressed. The outlook for all types of leukemia today is much better than in the past.
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