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Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Treatment (Patient)


General Information About Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many immature lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell).

Childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (also called acute lymphocytic leukemia or ALL) is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. This type of cancer usually gets worse quickly if it is not treated. It is the most common type of cancer in children.

Normally, the bone marrow makes blood stem cells (immature cells) that develop into mature blood cells over time. A blood stem cell may become a myeloid stem cell or a lymphoid stem cell.

The myeloid stem cell develops into one of three types of mature blood cells:

  • Red blood cells that carry oxygen and other materials to all tissues of the body.
  • Platelets that help prevent bleeding by causing blood clots to form.
  • Granulocytes (white blood cells) that fight infection and disease.

The lymphoid stem cell develops into a lymphoblast cell and then into one of three types of lymphocytes (white blood cells):

  • B lymphocytes that make antibodies to help fight infection.
  • T lymphocytes that help B lymphocytes make the antibodies that help fight infection.
  • Natural killer cells that attack cancer cells and viruses.

Blood cell development; drawing shows the steps a blood stem cell goes through to become a red blood cell, platelet, or white blood cell. A myeloid stem cell becomes a red blood cell, a platelet, or a myeloblast, which then becomes a granulocyte (the types of granulocytes are eosinophils, basophils, and neutrophils). A lymphoid stem cell becomes a lymphoblast and then becomes a B-lymphocyte, T-lymphocyte, or natural killer cell.
Blood cell development. A blood stem cell goes through several steps to become a red blood cell, platelet, or white blood cell.

In ALL, too many stem cells develop into lymphoblasts and do not mature to become lymphocytes. These lymphoblasts are called leukemia cells. The leukemia cells do not work like normal lymphocytes and are not able to fight infection very well. Also, as the number of leukemia cells increases in the blood and bone marrow, there is less room for healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. This may lead to infection, anemia, and easy bleeding.

This summary is about acute lymphoblastic leukemia. See the following PDQ summaries for information on other types of leukemia:

  • Adult Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Treatment.
  • Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Treatment.
  • Adult Acute Myeloid Leukemia Treatment.
  • Childhood Acute Myeloid Leukemia/Other Myeloid Malignancies Treatment.
  • Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia Treatment.
  • Hairy Cell Leukemia Treatment.

There are subgroups of childhood ALL.

There are different subgroups of ALL based on the following:

  • Whether the type of blood cell that is affected looks more like a B lymphocyte or a T lymphocyte.
  • The age of the child at diagnosis. For example, whether the child is younger than one year, one year to 10 years old, or older than 10 years (teenager).
  • Whether there are certain changes in the chromosomes. Philadelphia chromosome-positive ALL is one type of chromosome change that may occur.

See the Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Subgroups section for more information.

Family history and exposure to radiation may affect the risk of developing childhood ALL.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor. Possible risk factors for ALL include the following:

  • Having a brother or sister with leukemia.
  • Being white or Hispanic.
  • Living in the United States.
  • Being exposed to x-rays before birth.
  • Being exposed to radiation.
  • Past treatment with chemotherapy or other drugs that weaken the immune system.
  • Having certain changes in genes or geneticdisorders, such as Down syndrome.

Possible signs of childhood ALL include fever and bruising.

These and other symptoms may be caused by childhood ALL. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • Fever.
  • Easy bruising or bleeding.
  • Petechiae (flat, pinpoint, dark-red spots under the skin caused by bleeding).
  • Bone or joint pain.
  • Painless lumps in the neck, underarm, stomach, or groin.
  • Pain or feeling of fullness below the ribs.
  • Weakness, feeling tired, or looking pale.
  • Loss of appetite.

Tests that examine the blood and bone marrow are used to detect (find) and diagnose childhood ALL.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient's health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Complete blood count (CBC) with differential: A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the following:
    • The number of red blood cells and platelets.
    • The number and type of white blood cells.
    • The amount of hemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen) in the red blood cells.
    • The portion of the sample made up of red blood cells.

    Complete blood count (CBC); left panel shows blood being drawn from a vein on the inside of the elbow using a tube attached to a syringe; right panel shows a laboratory test tube with blood cells separated into layers: plasma, white blood cells, platelets, and red blood cells.
    Complete blood count (CBC). Blood is collected by inserting a needle into a vein and allowing the blood to flow into a tube. The blood sample is sent to the laboratory and the red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets are counted. The CBC is used to test for, diagnose, and monitor many different conditions.
  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy: The removal of bone marrow, blood, and a small piece of bone by inserting a hollow needle into the hipbone or breastbone. A pathologist views the bone marrow, blood, and bone under a microscope to look for signs of cancer.
    Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy; drawing shows a patient lying face down on a table and a Jamshidi needle (a long, hollow needle) being inserted into the hip bone. Inset shows the Jamshidi needle being inserted through the skin into the bone marrow of the hip bone.
    Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy. After a small area of skin is numbed, a Jamshidi needle (a long, hollow needle) is inserted into the patient's hip bone. Samples of blood, bone, and bone marrow are removed for examination under a microscope.
  • Cytogenetic analysis: A laboratory test in which the cells in a sample of blood or bone marrow are viewed under a microscope to look for certain changes in the chromosomes in the lymphocytes. For example, in Philadelphia chromosome-positive ALL, part of one chromosome is moved to another chromosome. This is called the "Philadelphia chromosome." Other tests, such as fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH), may also be done to look for certain changes in the chromosomes.
    Philadelphia chromosome; three-panel drawing shows a piece of chromosome 9 and a piece of chromosome 22 breaking off and trading places, creating a changed chromosome 22 called the Philadelphia chromosome. In the left panel, the drawing shows a normal chromosome 9 with the abl gene and a normal chromosome 22 with the bcr gene. In the center panel, the drawing shows chromosome 9 breaking apart in the abl gene and chromosome 22 breaking apart below the bcr gene. In the right panel, the drawing shows chromosome 9 with the piece from chromosome 22 attached and chromosome 22 with the piece from chromosome 9 containing part of the abl gene attached. The changed chromosome 22 with bcr-abl gene is called the Philadelphia chromosome.
    Philadelphia chromosome. A piece of chromosome 9 and a piece of chromosome 22 break off and trade places. The bcr-abl gene is formed on chromosome 22 where the piece of chromosome 9 attaches. The changed chromosome 22 is called the Philadelphia chromosome.
  • Immunophenotyping: A test in which the cells in a sample of blood or bone marrow are looked at under a microscope to find out if malignant lymphocytes (cancer) began from the B lymphocytes or the T lymphocytes.
  • Blood chemistry studies: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs and tissues in the body. An unusual (higher or lower than normal) amount of a substance can be a sign of disease in the organ or tissue that makes it.
  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options may depend on:

  • Age at diagnosis and race.
  • How quickly and how low the leukemia cell count drops after initial treatment.
  • Whether the leukemia cells began from B lymphocytes or T lymphocytes.
  • Whether there are certain changes in the chromosomes of lymphocytes.
  • Whether the leukemia has spread to the brain and spinal cord.
  • Whether the child has Down syndrome.

If leukemia recurs (comes back) after initial treatment, the prognosis and treatment options may depend on:

  • How long it is between the end of initial treatment and when the leukemia recurs.
  • Whether the leukemia recurs in the bone marrow or outside the bone marrow.
eMedicineHealth Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER

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