Leukemia, Acute Myeloid, Childhood
Treatment and Diagnosis:
If a person has symptoms that suggest leukemia, the doctor may do a physical exam and ask about the patient's personal and family medical history. The doctor also may order laboratory tests, especially blood tests.
The exams and tests may include the following:
- Physical exam — The doctor checks for swelling of the lymph nodes, spleen, and liver.
- Blood tests — The lab checks the level of blood cells. Leukemia causes a very high level of white blood cells. It also causes low levels of platelets and hemoglobin, which is found inside red blood cells. The lab also may check the blood for signs that leukemia has affected the liver and kidneys.
- Biopsy — The doctor removes some bone marrow from the hipbone or another large bone. A pathologist examines the sample under a microscope. The removal of tissue to look for cancer cells is called a biopsy. A biopsy is the only sure way to know whether leukemia cells are in the bone marrow.
There are two ways the doctor can obtain bone marrow. Some patients will have both procedures:
- Bone marrow aspiration: The doctor uses a needle to remove samples of bone marrow.
- Bone marrow biopsy: The doctor uses a very thick needle to remove a small piece of bone and bone marrow.
Local anesthesia helps to make the patient more comfortable.
- Cytogenetics — The lab looks at the chromosomes of cells from samples of peripheral blood, bone marrow, or lymph nodes.
- Spinal tap — The doctor removes some of the cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid that fills the spaces in and around the brain and spinal cord). The doctor uses a long, thin needle to remove fluid from the spinal column. The procedure takes about 30 minutes and is performed with local anesthesia. The patient must lie flat for several hours afterward to keep from getting a headache. The lab checks the fluid for leukemia cells or other signs of problems.
- Chest x-ray — The x-ray can reveal signs of disease in the chest.
Many people with leukemia want to take an active part in making decisions about their medical care. They want to learn all they can about their disease and their treatment choices. However, the shock and stress after a diagnosis of cancer can make it hard to think of everything to ask the doctor. Often it helps to make a list of questions before an appointment. To help remember what the doctor says, patients may take notes or ask whether they may use a tape recorder. Some also want to have a family member or friend with them when they talk to the doctor—to take part in the discussion, to take notes, or just to listen.
The doctor may refer patients to doctors who specialize in treating leukemia, or patients may ask for a referral. Specialists who treat leukemia include hematologists, medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists. Pediatric oncologists and hematologists treat childhood leukemia.
Whenever possible, patients should be treated at a medical center that has doctors experienced in treating leukemia. If this is not possible, the patient’s doctor may discuss the treatment plan with a specialist at such a center.
Getting a Second Opinion
Sometimes it is helpful to have a second opinion about the diagnosis and the treatment plan. Some insurance companies require a second opinion; others may cover a second opinion if the patient or doctor requests it. There are a number of ways to find a doctor for a second opinion:
The patient’s doctor may be able to suggest a doctor who specializes in adult or childhood leukemia. At cancer centers, several specialists often work together as a team.
A local or state medical society, a nearby hospital, or a medical school can usually provide the names of specialists.
Preparing for Treatment
The doctor can describe treatment choices and discuss the results expected with each treatment option. The doctor and patient can work together to develop a treatment plan that fits the patient’s needs.
Treatment depends on a number of factors, including the type of leukemia, the patient’s age, whether leukemia cells are present in the cerebrospinal fluid, and whether the leukemia has been treated before. It also may depend on certain features of the leukemia cells. The doctor also takes into consideration the patient’s symptoms and general health.
People do not need to ask all of their questions or understand all of the answers at one time. They will have other chances to ask the doctor to explain things that are not clear and to ask for more information
Methods of Treatment
The doctor is the best person to describe the treatment choices and discuss the expected results. Depending on the type and extent of the disease, patients may have chemotherapy, biological therapy, radiation therapy, or bone marrow transplantation. If the patient’s spleen is enlarged, the doctor may suggest surgery to remove it. Some patients receive a combination of treatments.
People with acute leukemia need to be treated right away. The goal of treatment is to bring about a remission. Then, when signs and symptoms disappear, more therapy may be given to prevent a relapse. This type of therapy is called maintenance therapy. Many people with acute leukemia can be cured.
Chronic leukemia patients who do not have symptoms may not require immediate treatment. The doctor may suggest watchful waiting for some patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. The health care team will monitor the patient’s health so that treatment can begin if symptoms occur or worsen. When treatment for chronic leukemia is needed, it can often control the disease and its symptoms. However, chronic leukemia can seldom be cured. Patients may receive maintenance therapy to help keep the cancer in remission.
A patient may want to talk to the doctor about taking part in a clinical trial, a research study of new treatment methods.
In addition to anticancer therapy, people with leukemia may have treatment to control pain and other symptoms of the cancer, to relieve the side effects of therapy, or to ease emotional problems. This kind of treatment is called symptom management, supportive care, or palliative care
Most patients with leukemia receive chemotherapy. This type of cancer treatment uses drugs to kill leukemia cells. Depending on the type of leukemia, the patient may receive a single drug or a combination of two or more drugs.
People with leukemia may receive chemotherapy in several different ways:
- By mouth
- By injection directly into a vein (IV or intravenous)
- Through a catheter (a thin, flexible tube) placed in a large vein, often in the upper chest—A catheter that stays in place is useful for patients who need many IV treatments. The health care professional injects drugs into the catheter, rather than directly into a vein. This method avoids the need for many injections, which can cause discomfort and injure the veins and skin.
- By injection directly into the cerebrospinal fluid — If the pathologist finds leukemia cells in the fluid that fills the spaces in and around the brain and spinal cord, the doctor may order intrathecal chemotherapy. The doctor injects drugs directly into the cerebrospinal fluid. This method is used because drugs given by IV injection or taken by mouth often do not reach cells in the brain and spinal cord. (A network of blood vessels filters blood going to the brain and spinal cord. This blood-brain barrier stops drugs from reaching the brain.
The patient may receive the drugs in two ways:
- Injection into the spine: The doctor injects the drugs into the lower part of the spinal column.
- Ommaya reservoir: Children and some adult patients receive intrathecal chemotherapy through a special catheter called an Ommaya reservoir. The doctor places the catheter under the scalp. The doctor injects the anticancer drugs into the catheter. This method avoids the discomfort of injections into the spine.
Patients receive chemotherapy in cycles: a treatment period, then a recovery period, and then another treatment period. In some cases, the patient has chemotherapy as an outpatient at the hospital, at the doctor’s office, or at home. However, depending on which drugs are given, and the patient’s general health, a hospital stay may be necessary.
Some people with chronic myeloid leukemia receive a new type of treatment called targeted therapy. Targeted therapy blocks the production of leukemia cells but does not harm normal cells. Gleevec, also called STI-571, is the first targeted therapy approved for chronic myeloid leukemia
People with some types of leukemia have biological therapy. This type of treatment improves the body’s natural defenses against cancer. The therapy is given by injection into a vein.
For some patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, the type of biological therapy used is a monoclonal antibody. This substance binds to the leukemia cells. This therapy enables the immune system to kill leukemia cells in the blood and bone marrow.
For some patients with chronic myeloid leukemia, the biological therapy is a natural substance called interferon. This substance can slow the growth of leukemia cells.
Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill leukemia cells. For most patients, a large machine directs radiation at the spleen, the brain, or other parts of the body where leukemia cells have collected. Some patients receive radiation that is directed to the whole body. (Total-body irradiation usually is given before a bone marrow transplant.) Patients receive radiation therapy at a hospital or clinic.
Stem Cell Transplantation
Some patients with leukemia have stem cell transplantation. A stem cell transplant allows a patient to be treated with high doses of drugs, radiation, or both. The high doses destroy both leukemia cells and normal blood cells in the bone marrow. Later, the patient receives healthy stem cells through a flexible tube that is placed in a large vein in the neck or chest area. New blood cells develop from the transplanted stem cells.
There are several types of stem cell transplantation:
- Bone marrow transplantation — The stem cells come from bone marrow.
- Peripheral stem cell transplantation — The stem cells come from peripheral blood.
- Umbilical cord blood transplantation — For a child with no donor, the doctor may use stem cells from umbilical cord blood. The umbilical cord blood is from a newborn baby. Sometimes umbilical cord blood is frozen for use later.
Stem cells may come from the patient or from a donor:
- Autologous stem cell transplantation — This type of transplant uses the patient’s own stem cells. The stem cells are removed from the patient, and the cells may be treated to kill any leukemia cells present. The stem cells are frozen and stored. After the patient receives high-dose chemotherapy or radiation therapy, the stored stem cells are thawed and returned to the patient.
- Allogeneic stem cell transplantation — This type of transplant uses healthy stem cells from a donor. The patient's brother, sister, or parent may be the donor. Sometimes the stem cells come from an unrelated donor. Doctors use blood tests to be sure the donor’s cells match the patient’s cells.
- Syngeneic stem cell transplantation — This type of transplant uses stem cells from the patient’s healthy identical twin.
After a stem cell transplant, patients usually stay in the hospital for several weeks. The health care team protects patients from infection until the transplanted stem cells begin to produce enough white blood cells.
Side Effects of Cancer Treatment
Because cancer treatment may damage healthy cells and tissues, unwanted side effects are common. Specific side effects depend on many factors, including the type and extent of the treatment. Side effects may not be the same for each person, and they may even change from one treatment session to the next. Before treatment starts, health care providers will explain possible side effects and suggest ways to manage them.