Few diagnoses are as frightening to parents and kids alike as childhood leukemia, or cancer of the blood. In years past, it was usually a fatal diagnosis, but today, most children are cured as modern treatments have changed the outlook for this disease from hopeless to hopeful.

Leukemia is the most common cancer diagnosed in children, affecting about 3,000 kids each year. The most common type of leukemia, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), accounts for between 75 and 80 percent of childhood leukemia cases. ALL develops in the bone marrow, which is located in the soft center of long bones and is responsible for producing blood cells. White blood cells help the body fight illness, but in leukemia patients, the white blood cells (WBCs) don't fight infections like normal ones do. These abnormal WBCs reproduce rapidly, overwhelm healthy cells, and create symptoms.

Symptoms and Causes

Childhood leukemia can occur at any age, but it most commonly occurs between ages 2 and 6 and is more frequent in boys than girls. The symptoms vary but may include:

  • Recurrent fevers
  • Bone, joint, or abdominal pain
  • Bruising
  • Petechiae (broken blood vessels)
  • Frequent infections
  • Anemia
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Difficulty breathing

Parents of children with leukemia want to know what caused their child to become ill, but doctors and scientists don't usually have an answer. In most cases, the genetic mutations that cause blood cells to reproduce abnormally occur randomly and spontaneously. Scientists are researching environmental, genetic, and other causes that may account for why some children develop the disease.


Treatment for childhood leukemia has come a long way, and new options now make childhood leukemia a curable disease. The type of treatment a child receives depends on a number of factors, including the specific type of leukemia he has, not to mention his age, overall health, and symptoms. Effective treatments not only cure the cancer, but also help alleviate symptoms and prevent ongoing complications. Treatments may include chemotherapy, radiation, and/or stem cell transplant. Today the doses and types of medicines used are more effective and easier on the patient than before.

  • Chemotherapy kills leukemia cells by disrupting their ability to reproduce. Since chemo doesn't differentiate between healthy and sick cells, treatment can cause a number of side effects including hair loss, nausea, and skin lesions. As unpleasant and sometimes dangerous as these can be, they are almost always temporary and medication can alleviate many side effects.
  • Radiation kills or damages cancer cells and shrinks tumors. It's usually only used in childhood leukemia cases when a child is at high risk for relapse in brain or nervous system cells.
  • Stem cells are a specific type of cell produced in the bone marrow and from which all blood cells develop. Stem cells can turn into red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets, which help in clotting. Stem cell transplant isn't a commonly used treatment for childhood leukemia, but in some cases, donated healthy bone marrow that closely matches the child's bone marrow is transferred into the patient's bone marrow, where it develops into healthy blood cells. This treatment isn't necessary in many cases of childhood leukemia.

Because stubborn leukemia cells hide throughout the body, treatment for childhood leukemia can last two or more years. However, more than 95 percent of children go into remission within a month of starting treatment, and more than 80 percent are eventually cured. These statistics are dramatically different from what they were even a generation ago. While we still don't know what causes some children to develop this frightening disease, we now know how to treat them, and this knowledge offers sick children a much brighter future than they once would have had.

David Levine, MD, reviewed this article.




Boston Children's Hospital. "Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia." Page accessed 11 July 2013. http://www.childrenshospital.org/az/Site759/mainpageS759P4.html

Childhood Leukemia Foundation.