Leukemia is cancer of the white blood cells. White blood cells (also called leukocytes or WBCs) fight infections and other diseases.
In leukemia, the bone marrow (spongy material inside the bones) makes many white blood cells that aren't normal. These abnormal WBCs crowd the bone marrow and get into the bloodstream. Unlike healthy white blood cells, they can't protect the body from infections.
Sometimes leukemia (loo-KEE-mee-uh) spreads from the bone marrow to other parts of the body, like the chest, brain, or liver.
Leukemia is the most common type of cancer in children. But most kids and teens treated for leukemia are cured of the disease.
Kids with leukemia may get more viral or bacterial infections than other kids. These happen because their white blood cells can't fight infections.
They also may get anemia, which is when there's a low number of red blood cells. This happens because leukemia cells crowd the bone marrow. This prevents bone marrow from making the usual amount of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
Kids with anemia may:
feel very tired, weak, or short of breath while playing
bruise very easily, get a lot of nosebleeds, or bleed for a long time after even a minor cut
Other symptoms of leukemia can include:
pain in the bones or joints, sometimes causing a limp
swollen lymph nodes (swollen glands) in the neck, groin, or elsewhere
poor appetite and weight loss
fevers with no other symptoms
Sometimes leukemia can spread, or metastasize. If it spreads to the brain, symptoms may include headaches, seizures, balance problems, or vision problems. If it spreads to the lymph nodes in the chest, symptoms may include breathing problems and chest pain.
What Causes Leukemia?
Doctors don't know exactly what causes leukemia. But most cases happen when there is a change (mutation) in a gene that happens spontaneously. This means that the genetic mutation was not passed down from a parent.
Kids have a greater chance of developing leukemia if they have:
an identical twin who had leukemia at a young age
a non-identical twin or other siblings with leukemia
A pediatric (a doctor who specializes in childhood cancer) will lead the medical team caring for a child with leukemia. The oncologist works with other specialists, including nurses, social workers, psychologists, and surgeons.
Chemotherapy is the main treatment for childhood leukemia. The dosages and drugs used may differ based on the child's age and the type of leukemia.
Other treatments include:
radiation therapy: high-energy X-rays that kill cancer cells
targeted therapy: specific drugs that find and attack cancer cells without hurting normal cells
With the proper treatment, the outlook for kids and teens with leukemia is quite good.
Most childhood leukemias have very high remission rates, with some up to 90%. Remission means that doctors see no cancer cells in the body. Most kids are cured of the disease. This means that they're in permanent remission.
Having a child being treated for cancer can feel overwhelming for any family. But you're not alone. To find support, talk to anyone on the care team or a hospital social worker. Many resources are available to help you and your child.
You also can find information and support online at: