CareTalk Blog: Nemours Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders

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Leukemia

The term leukemia refers to cancers of the white blood cells (also called leukocytes or WBCs). Leukemias, as a group, make up about a quarter of all pediatric cancers. Luckily, with treatment, most children with leukemia will be free of the disease without it coming back.

Leukemias start in the bone marrow — the soft tissue found inside bones that produces blood cells. When a child is diagnosed with leukemia, it’s because the white blood cells in the body are producing abnormally. These cells (also known as blasts) start to crowd out the healthy cells in the bone marrow. Eventually, the healthy cells have no place to go, so they stop producing. When a child's body no longer produces enough healthy white blood cells it can cause anemia, swollen lymph nodes, and other symptoms of leukemia in children.

Leukemia is classified as being either acute (meaning it’s rapidly developing) or chronic (meaning it’s slowly developing). About 98% of pediatric leukemias are acute.

 
Types of Pediatric Leukemia
Types of leukemia in children include:
  • Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL): This happens when too many lymphoblasts (a certain type of white blood cell) are produced.
    This is the most common type of leukemia, affecting nearly 60% of kids with leukemia.
  • Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML): This occurs when too many immature white blood cells (called myeloid blasts) are made.
    These leukemia cells are abnormal and can’t mature into normal white blood cells.
  • Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML): This rare form of pediatric leukemia happens because there are too many mature white blood cells.

 
Signs and Symptoms of Leukemia in Children

Although the symptoms of leukemia in each individual child can vary, common symptoms of leukemia in children include:

  • anemia  (when the level of healthy red blood cells in the body becomes
    too low)
  • bleeding and/or bruising
  • frequent or reoccurring infections
  • bone and joint pain
  • abdominal pain
  • swollen lymph nodes (also called “swollen glands”)
  • difficulty breathing
  • excessive fatigue (more tired than usual)
  • poor appetite

IMPORTANT NOTE: Instances of the symptoms of leukemia in children listed above, either together or on their own, do not automatically mean that a child has leukemia or any other kind of cancer. Any or all of these symptoms could be a sign of something else.

 
Diagnosing Leukemia in Children

One of our Nemours pediatric hematologists-oncologists (doctors who treat blood disorders and cancers) will conduct a physical examination on your child to check for symptoms of leukemia in children such as signs of infection, anemia, abnormal bleeding, and swollen lymph nodes.

The doctor will also feel your child's abdomen to see if the liver or spleen is enlarged. We’ll also take a complete medical history by asking about your child’s symptoms, past health, your family's health history, any medications your child is taking, allergies, etc.

After this exam, the doctor will order a CBC (complete blood count) to measure the numbers of white cells, red cells, and platelets in your child's blood. Your child’s blood chemistries will also be checked.

Then, depending on what we find in the exam and blood tests, your child also may need a:

  • bone marrow biopsy and aspiration (when marrow samples are taken for testing, usually from the back of the hip)
  • lymph node biopsy (when lymph nodes are removed and examined under a microscope to look for abnormal cells)
  • lumbar puncture (also called a spinal tap, when a sample of spinal fluid is taken from the lower back and examined for evidence of abnormal cells. This test will show if the leukemia has spread to the brain and spinal cord.)

We know that tests can be scary – for you and your child. Whatever kind of tests your child might need, know that your Nemours pediatric leukemia care team will do everything we can to make the experience as comfortable as possible – physically and emotionally. We’ll give sedation or anesthesia as needed and offer support and guidance at every step.

Learn more about what to expect with certain medical tests »

 
Treating Leukemia in Children

Depending on your child’s age, overall health, extent of the disease, and other factors, treatment may include one or a combination of the following:

  • chemotherapy
  • radiation therapy   
  • blood or bone marrow transplant (also sometimes called a BMT, BBMT, stem cell transplant, or cord blood transplant)
  • medications/antibiotics
  • blood transfusions

At Nemours, we know that getting a cancer diagnosis can be very frightening and overwhelming for your whole family. That’s why Nemours’ board-certified pediatric hematologists-oncologists, specialty nurses, cancer researchers, and other cancer experts are focused on helping not only your child, but your family, as well.

From diagnosis to treatment (and beyond) we’ll be here to help guide your family through your pediatric leukemia journey – and to strive and hope, with you, for a better tomorrow.

Stem Cell Transplants

Stem cells are cells in the body that have the potential to turn into anything, such as a skin cell, a liver cell, a brain cell, or a blood cell. Stem cells that turn into blood cells are called hematopoietic stem cells. These cells are capable of developing into the three types of blood cells:

  1. red blood cells that carry oxygen
  2. white blood cells that fight infection
  3. platelets that help blood to clot

Hematopoietic stem cells can be found in bone marrow (the spongy tissue inside bones), the bloodstream, or the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies.

A stem cell transplant (sometimes called a bone marrow transplant) can replenish a child's supply of healthy hematopoietic stem cells after they have been depleted. It's used to treat a wide range of diseases, including cancers like leukemia, lymphoma, neuroblastoma, Wilms tumor, and certain testicular or ovarian cancers; blood disorders; immune system diseases; and bone marrow syndromes.

Transplanted hematopoietic stem cells are put into the bloodstream through an intravenous (IV) line, much like a blood transfusion. Once in the body, they can produce healthy new blood and immune system cells.

Types of Transplants

The two main types of stem cell transplants are autologous and allogeneic. The type of transplant needed will depend on the child's specific medical condition and the availability of a matching donor.

  • Autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplant. With this type of transplant, patients act as their own donor. That is, a child who is about to undergo cancer treatment will have his or her own stem cells removed (harvested) and frozen for later use. After the child receives chemotherapy and/or radiation, the stem cells are thawed and put back into the child's body.

    This procedure may be done once or many times, depending on the need. Sometimes doctors will use extra-high doses of chemotherapy during treatment (to kill as many cancer cells as possible) if they know a patient will be getting a stem cell transplant soon after.
  • Allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplant. With an allogeneic transplant, the stem cells come from a donor — often a sibling but sometimes another volunteer — whose cells are considered a "match" for the patient. The process of finding a match is called tissue typing (or HLA [human leukocyte antigen] typing). HLA is a protein on the surface of blood cells. Basically, the more "HLA markers" a child and the potential donor have in common, the greater the chance that the transplant will be successful.

    Unlike with an autologous transplant, there is a risk of a child's body rejecting the donated cells. Sometimes, despite the donor being a good match, the transplant simply may not take. Other times, the donor cells can begin to make immune cells that attack the recipient's body. This condition is called graft-versus-host disease, and can be quite serious. Fortunately, most cases are successfully treated with steroids and other medications.

    Sometimes, an upside of graft-versus-host disease is that the newly transplanted cells recognize the body's cancer cells as different or foreign, and actually work to fight them.

Transplantation

Stem cell transplantation is a very complex process that may span several months. A team of doctors is usually involved in determining if a child is a candidate and, if so, whether the transplant will be autologous or allogeneic.

For an allogeneic transplant, a compatible donor will be sought among family members or through a national registry of volunteers. Once a match is found, the donor's stem cells will be harvested. Three different types of hematopoietic stem cells can be collected or harvested:

  1. Peripheral blood stem cells are harvested from donated blood. The stem cells are separated and collected and the rest of the blood is returned to the donor.
  2. Bone marrow stem cells are collected from the donor's hip bone through a surgical procedure.
  3. Cord blood stem cells are collected from a mother's placenta immediately after a child is born.

While all three types can replenish a patient's blood and bone marrow cells, there are advantages and disadvantages to each. The doctor will suggest the best type of stem cell for your child's illness.

The next step in the transplantation process is conditioning therapy, which kills unhealthy cells (like cancer cells) to make room for stem cells to grow and/or weakens the immune system so that there’s less chance of the body rejecting the new cells. One type of conditioning therapy delivers high doses of chemotherapy and/or radiation to kill cells, destroy the bone marrow, and weaken the immune system. Most kids will get this type of therapy. Another type of conditioning therapy delivers lower doses of chemotherapy, radiation, or another treatment to weaken the immune system. The doctor will decide which type of conditioning therapy is best.

Soon after the conditioning phase, the transplant itself will be done through infusion and healthy stem cells will be introduced to the child's body. After the infusion, the child will be watched very closely to make sure the new stem cells are settling into the marrow and beginning to manufacture new blood cells (called engrafting). Doctors will watch for any signs of rejection as well as graft-verses-host disease in kids with allogeneic transplants.

Engrafting takes an average of 2 weeks, but can be as quick as 1 week or as long as 6 weeks. Your child will receive medicines to promote engrafting and prevent rejection and graft-verses-host disease.

Recovery

Kids who receive stem cell transplants have a high risk of infection because during conditioning therapy and while the transplant is grafting, their immune systems are weakened and unable to fight bacteria and other germs that enter the body. Children who receive an allogeneic transplant have an even greater risk of infection because they require medications to further suppress their immune systems to reduce the chance of rejection.

Because of these risks, a child who's had a stem cell transplant will not be released from the hospital until doctors are sure the transplant has successfully engrafted and the child is otherwise doing well.

Once released, a child needs very close monitoring and follow-up care. School and other public indoor areas may be off limits for 3 months to a year, and other places might be restricted as well. This is because for kids with a compromised immune system, even a simple infection like a common cold can be serious and even life threatening if untreated.

Coping

The stress of having a child who is being treated for cancer or another serious condition can be overwhelming for a family. That stress can be magnified when treatment requires a long "isolation period," as is necessary with a stem cell transplant.

To find out what support is available to you and your child, talk to your doctor, a hospital social worker, or child life specialist. Many resources are available that can help you get through this difficult time.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: October 2012