Childhood Leukemia

Facts about the bone marrow:

The bone marrow is the soft material which is found in the middle of the bones. Bone marrow contains cells which help in the formation of the blood, and these cells are known as “stem cells”. These stem cells can mature into a number of blood cells to perform a variety of functions required by the human body.

Each type of stem cell has to perform a specific function. For instance, the red blood cells (RBCs) are responsible for the transportation of oxygen from the lungs to the different parts of the body, and they also carry away waste products and carbon dioxide. Platelets are responsible for the mechanism of blood clotting which actively controls bleeding in case of an injury. White blood cells are responsible for combating infections caused by foreign agents. There are 3 specialized types of white blood cells known as the lymphocytes, the granulocytes and the monocytes.

Leukemia facts:

The most common type of cancer which affects adolescents and children is known as leukemia. Leukemia is responsible for 3,800 new cancer cases ever year. Leukemia constitutes about one third of all the cancers that affect children below the age of 15, and nearly one quarter of all cancers that occur before the age of twenty.

Unlike other forms of cancers that occur during childhood, the development of leukemia does not depend upon the type of lifestyle at all[1]. However, there are a number of genetic conditions and diseases that place some children at a greater risk for the development of leukemia (such as Down’s syndrome). Other factors that may contribute to the development of leukemia include excessive exposure to radiation – such as that of the Chernobyl incident of the year 1986, which caused leukemia in many of the children who were exposed to radiation.


Leukemia originates within the bone marrow of an individual and affects the white blood cells which can then transform into destructive cancer cells. As more and more white blood cells get affected and transformed into malignant cells, the bone marrow ceases to function optimally. This, then, results in a significant decrease in the number of healthy blood cells present in the body. Most leukemia cases reported in children are acute leukemia, meaning that the cancer spreads rapidly. The second type of leukemia is chronic leukemia, which develops and spreads at a slower rate and is rarely seen in children and adolescents. 80% of all children who are diagnosed with leukemia suffer from acute lymphocytic leukemia, also known as ALL. This type of leukemia involves the lymphocytes and has a 5 year survival rate of about 85%.

Almost 20% of children diagnosed with leukemia suffer from AML, or acute myelogenous leukemia. This type of leukemia involves various other forms of blood cells and has a 5 year survival rate of about 50%. All cells affected by this leukemia travel through all parts of the body by the bloodstream. This is the reason this particular form of cancer involves the entire body, and not just specific parts or organs of the body such as in the case of other types of cancers.


The most effective form of treatment in case of leukemia is chemotherapy. Patients who are diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia are classified into groups rated low risk, standard risk, high risk and very high risk.

These risk levels are used for the determination of the severity of the cancer and the dosage of therapy that should be used for the most effective treatment. Low and standard risk categories are treated by using toxic therapies that are less intense in nature as compared to the rest. Depending upon the level of risk, standard ALL treatment therapies can take from 2 to 3 years.

Patients who are diagnosed with the AML types of leukemias are given greater doses of chemotherapies within a shorter time as compared to those of ALL. It has been seen that a majority of all leukemia cases have been successfully treated with the help of chemotherapy. However, in case the cancer spreads and affects other vital organs of the body such as the testicles or the brain, the patient may require radiation therapy for effective and complete cancer treatment. For some very high risk level patients, stem cell transplantation may be necessary for treatment. Patients with AML may require stem cell transplantation procedures in case of remissions in order to minimize the chance of cancer relapse. Children suffering from leukemia are given a specialized implantable catheter for the administration of chemotherapy, for drawing blood and for the infusion of various blood products and fluid.

Surviving leukemia:

A child who survives leukemia and his or her parents often require counseling to make sure that they can move on with their lives. Many hospitals provide supportive care to parents and children who suffer from childhood cancers. The fear of relapse and other fears tend to complicate matters. Support groups are also helpful for children and parents to heal and continue with life after cancer.


American Cancer Society Learn about Leukemia-Children Access at: and select from the menu under “Choose a Cancer Topic.”

A detailed guide about childhood leukemia can be printed by section or as an Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) file.

National Cancer Institute. Childhood Cancers. Access at:  and click on “Types of Cancer.”

The top page of the section links to patient versions of PDQ@ statements, clinical trial information, and other NCI publications on this topic.

People Living with Cancer. Leukemia, Acute Lymphoblastic (ALL), Childhood Cancer and Leukemia, Acute Myeloid (AML), Childhood Cancer. Access at: and click on “Cancer Type.”  The PLWC oncologist-approved guides on childhood leukemias can be printed in their entirety or by subtopic.


Carroll, William L., and Jessica B. Reisman. 2005. /1 00 Questions and Answers about Your Child’s Cancer. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.

This book presents practical answers to questions about childhood cancer, treatment options, post-treatment quality of life, and coping strategies for both patients and parents. Two child cancer experts authored this book and incorporated comments from parents of children with cancer. The book provides detailed information about diagnostic tests, supportive
care issues, and side effects and complications of treatment that are common to all children treated for cancer. The text is easy to read, and definitions for key terms are provided in the sidebar.


Keene, Nancy 2004. Educating the Child with Cancer: A Guide for Parents and Teachers. Kensington, MD: Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation.

This book was developed with the intent of promoting understanding and communication among parents, educators, and medical professionals so that together they can provide an appropriate education for children who have been treated for cancer. Learning issues that face children treated for cancer from infancy through adulthood are covered in depth, with some chapters written by experts and others by parents. Topics include gaining access to special education services, helping siblings in the classroom, physical activity in school, treatment-related late effects that may cause learning difficulties, and grief in the classroom.

This article was originally published on 7/12/2014 and last revision and update of it was 9/14/2015.