- How is childhood leukemia treated?
- Immediate treatment of childhood leukemia
- Surgery for childhood leukemia
- Radiation treatment for childhood leukemia
- Chemotherapy for childhood leukemia
- Targeted therapy for childhood leukemia
- High-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant for childhood leukemia
- Treatment of children with acute lymphocytic leukemia
- Treatment of children with acute myeloid leukemia
- Treatment of children with acute promyelocytic leukemia
- Treatment of children with juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia
- Treatment of children with chronic myelogenous leukemia
- More information on treating childhood leukemia
- Status of acute leukemia after treatment
- Clinical trials for childhood leukemia
- Complementary and alternative therapies for childhood leukemia
Chemotherapy for childhood leukemia
Chemotherapy (chemo) refers to the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Usually the drugs are given either into a vein, into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), or as pills. Once the drugs enter the bloodstream, they spread throughout the body. Chemo is the main treatment for nearly all types of leukemia. Children might get several 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, while ALL treatment uses lower doses over a longer period of time (about 2 to 3 years).
Immediate side effects
While chemo drugs kill cancer cells, they can also damage normal cells. This happens because they are aimed at cells that are growing quickly such as cancer cells, but in the process they also damage other fast-growing cells. The lining of the mouth and intestines, hair, and bone marrow (where new blood cells are made) all grow quickly and are likely to be damaged by chemo, which can lead to the following side effects:
- Hair loss
- Mouth sores
- Loss of appetite
- 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, there are drugs that 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 or 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.
Long-term side effects
Possible long-term effects of chemo are described in the section, “Long-term effects of treatment for childhood leukemia.”
Last Medical Review: 06/29/2012
Last Revised: 01/21/2013