Childhood Leukemia Overview

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Treating Leukemia in Children TOPICS

Chemotherapy for childhood leukemia

Chemotherapy (chemo) is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. This is the main treatment for most types of leukemia.

Usually the drugs are given either into a vein, into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), or as pills. Once the drugs enter the blood, they spread throughout the body. Children might get several chemo drugs at different times during the course of treatment.

Doctors give chemo in cycles, with each cycle of treatment followed by a rest period. As a rule, AML treatment uses higher doses of chemo over a shorter period of time (usually less than a year), while ALL treatment uses lower doses over a longer period of time (about 2 to 3 years).

Possible side effects

Chemo drugs attack cells that are growing quickly, which is why they work against cancer cells. But other cells in the body, such as those in the lining of the mouth and intestines, hair, and bone marrow (where new blood cells are made) also grow quickly and are likely to be damaged by chemo. This can lead to side effects, such as:

  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Increased risk of infections (because of low white blood cell counts)
  • Bruising and bleeding easily (from low platelet counts)
  • Tiredness (caused by low red blood cell counts)

These side effects usually go away after treatment ends. And there are often ways to manage these side effects during treatment. For example, drugs can help prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting. Drugs known as growth factors are sometimes given to keep blood counts higher and reduce the chance of infection.

Tumor lysis syndrome can be a side effect of chemo. When large numbers of leukemia cells are killed, they break open and release their contents into the bloodstream. This can affect the kidneys, heart, and nervous system. Giving the child extra fluids and certain drugs that help rid the body of these toxins can help prevent this problem.

Some side effects depend on which drugs are used. Be sure to ask your child’s doctor or nurse about any specific side effects you should watch for and about what you can do to help reduce them.

Possible long-term effects of chemo are described in “Long-term effects of treatment for childhood leukemia.”

For more on chemotherapy, see the Chemotherapy section of our website, or our document A Guide to Chemotherapy.

Last Medical Review: 05/13/2015
Last Revised: 02/03/2016