What is leukemia? — Leukemia is another word for cancer of the blood. The blood is made up of different types of cells. These cells are made in the middle of bones, in a part called the bone marrow.
In leukemia, the bone marrow makes abnormal blood cells instead of normal blood cells. The abnormal cells grow out of control, get into the blood, and travel around the body. Sometimes, these cells collect in certain parts of the body. When the bone marrow makes abnormal blood cells, it does not make the normal blood cells your child’s body needs. This causes symptoms.
There are different types of leukemia. Some types grow quickly, and others grow slowly. Most leukemia in children is the fast-growing type, called “acute” leukemia. There are 2 types of acute leukemia. Most leukemia in children is acute lymphoblastic leukemia, also called “ALL.” Some leukemia in children is acute myeloid leukemia, also called “AML.”
What are the symptoms of leukemia? — The most common symptoms are:
●Feeling very tired and weak
●Bleeding more easily than usual
●Getting fevers or infections more easily than usual
●Bone pain, which can make children limp or refuse to walk
●Swollen lymph nodes (bean-shaped organs) that you can see or feel under your child’s skin
These symptoms can also be caused by conditions that are not leukemia. But if your child has these symptoms, let the doctor or nurse know.
Is there a test for leukemia? — Yes. The doctor or nurse will ask about your child’s symptoms and do an exam. He or she will also do:
●A bone marrow biopsy – For this test, a doctor takes a very small sample of the bone marrow. Then another doctor looks at the cells under a microscope.
How is leukemia in children treated? — The right treatment for your child will depend on the type of leukemia he or she has. Treatment for leukemia can include one or more of the following:
●Chemotherapy – Chemotherapy is the term doctors use to describe a group of medicines that kill cancer cells. Children usually get these medicines through a thin tube that goes in their vein. Sometimes, children also get these medicines through a thin tube that goes in their back.
●Radiation therapy – Radiation kills cancer cells.
●Bone marrow transplant – This treatment replaces cells in the bone marrow that are killed by chemotherapy or radiation. The “donor” cells can come from different places, including:
•People who are related to your child, and whose blood matches your child’s
•People who are not related to your child, but whose blood matches your child’s
•Blood (that matches your child’s) from a newborn baby’s umbilical cord
Most children are in “remission” after they start treatment. This means that doctors do not see any more abnormal blood cells in the blood or bone marrow. But even though doctors do not see any abnormal cells, they are still in the body. To kill these cells and keep the leukemia from returning, your child will need to finish treatment. It usually takes about 2 to 3 years to finish treatment.
What happens after treatment? — After treatment, the doctor will check your child every so often to see if the leukemia comes back. Follow-ups include talking with the doctor, exams, and blood tests. Sometimes, the doctor will also do a bone marrow biopsy.
You should also watch your child for the symptoms listed above. Having those symptoms could mean the leukemia has come back. Tell the doctor or nurse if your child has any symptoms.
What happens if the leukemia comes back? — If the leukemia comes back, your child might have more chemotherapy, radiation, or a bone marrow transplant.
What else should I do? — It is important to follow all of the doctor’s instructions about visits and tests. It’s also important to let the doctor know if your child has any side effects or problems during treatment.
Leukemia treatment can involve making many choices, such as what treatment your child should have and when. Always let the doctors and nurses know how you feel about a treatment. Any time your child is offered a treatment, ask:
●What are the benefits of this treatment? Is it likely to help my child live longer? Will it reduce or prevent symptoms?
●What are the downsides to this treatment?
●Are there other options besides this treatment?
●What happens if my child does not have this treatment?