Childhood Leukemia

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Treating Leukemia in Children TOPICS

How is childhood leukemia treated?

This information represents the views of the doctors and nurses serving on the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Information Database Editorial Board. These views are based on their interpretation of studies published in medical journals, as well as their own professional experience.
The treatment information in this document is not official policy of the Society and is not intended as medical advice to replace the expertise and judgment of your cancer care team. It is intended to help you and your family make informed decisions, together with your doctor.
Your doctor may have reasons for suggesting a treatment plan different from these general treatment options. Don’t hesitate to ask him or her questions about your treatment options.

Making treatment decisions

Children and teens with leukemia and their families have special needs. These needs can be met best by cancer centers for children and teens, working closely with the child’s primary care doctor. These centers offer the advantage of being treated by teams of specialists who know the differences between cancers in adults and those in children and teens, as well as the unique needs of younger people with cancer.

For childhood leukemias, this team is typically led by a pediatric oncologist, a doctor who treats children’s cancers. Many other specialists may be involved in your child’s care as well, including other doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners (NPs), physician assistants (PAs), psychologists, social workers, rehabilitation specialists, and other health professionals.

Going through cancer treatment with a child often means meeting lots of specialists and learning about parts of the medical system you probably haven’t had contact with before. You can find out more about this in our document Children Diagnosed With Cancer: Understanding the Health Care System.

After leukemia is diagnosed and tests have been done to determine its type, your child’s cancer care team will discuss the treatment options with you. The most important factor in choosing a treatment is the type of leukemia, but other factors also play a role.

The main treatment for childhood leukemia is chemotherapy. For some children with higher risk leukemias, high-dose chemotherapy may be given along with a stem cell transplant. Other treatments such as targeted drugs, surgery, and radiation therapy may be used in special circumstances.

Treatment of acute forms of childhood leukemia (lymphocytic and myeloid) is usually very intensive, so it is important that it takes place in a center that specializes in treating childhood cancers. Your child’s doctor should make sure that treatment reflects your child’s risk group (based on certain prognostic factors) and that he or she will be treated according to a protocol or guidelines of the National Cancer Institute or a cooperative study group. This will ensure the most up-to-date treatment.

It’s important to discuss your child’s treatment options as well as their possible side effects with the treatment team to help make the decision that’s the best fit for your child. If there is anything you don’t understand, ask to have it explained. (See the section “What should you ask your child’s doctor about childhood leukemia?” for some questions to ask.)

It’s also important that you tell your child’s doctors about any drugs, herbal remedies, or other alternative medicines you might be giving your child so that the doctors can determine if they might affect standard treatments.

For more on how a specific type of childhood leukemia is treated, see the following sections:

Last Medical Review: 04/17/2015
Last Revised: 04/17/2015