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Understanding Leukemia

Updated: Oct 16, 2018

Overview of Leukemia: Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is the most common form of cancer in children, comprising approximately 30 percent of all childhood malignancies.  Approximately 2500 to 3500 new cases of ALL are diagnosed in children each year in the United States.  The majority of cases make a full recovery and >93% of cases are disease free at 5 years.  

What is acute lymphoblastic leukemia? — Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, called "ALL," is a type of blood cancer. ALL is fast-growing and needs to be treated quickly. 

Blood is made up of different types of cells. These cells are made in the center of your bones, in a part called the bone marrow.

When people have ALL, their bone marrow makes abnormal blood cells instead of normal blood cells. These abnormal blood 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 a person's body needs. This can cause symptoms.

What are the symptoms of ALL? — The most common symptoms of ALL include:

●Feeling very tired and weak

●Bleeding or bruising more easily than normal

●Getting sick from infections more easily than normal

How is ALL treated? — Treatment for ALL is usually made up of 3 parts.

The first part of treatment is called "induction of remission" and lasts about 4 weeks. During this part, people stay in the hospital and get chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is the medical term for medicines that kill cancer cells or stop them from growing.

Most people are in "remission" after the chemotherapy. 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, there are still abnormal cells in the body. To kill these cells and prevent the ALL from returning, people need more treatment.

The second part of treatment is called "consolidation/intensification therapy" and lasts a few months. During this time, people can have more chemo, radiation or a bone marrow transplant. 

The third part of treatment is called "maintenance therapy" and lasts 2 to 2 ½ years. During maintenance therapy, people get chemotherapy once a month. They also take other medicines (pills) on certain days of the month. Many people are able to return to their usual activities during this part of treatment.


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