Treating Childhood Leukemia
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:
- Treatment of acute lymphocytic (lymphoblastic) leukemia (ALL)
- Treatment of acute myelogenous leukemia (AML)
- Treatment of acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL)
- Treatment of juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia (JMML)
- Treatment of chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML)
Thinking about taking part in a clinical trial
Clinical trials are carefully controlled research studies that are done to get a closer look at promising new treatments or procedures. Clinical trials are one way to get state-of-the art cancer treatment. In some cases they may be the only way to get access to newer treatments. They are also the best way for doctors to learn better methods to treat cancer. Still, they are not right for everyone.
If you would like to learn more about clinical trials that might be right for your child, start by asking your doctor if your clinic or hospital conducts clinical trials. You can also call our clinical trials matching service at 1-800-303-5691 for a list of studies that meet your child’s medical needs, or see “ Clinical Trials” to learn more.
Considering complementary and alternative methods
You may hear about alternative or complementary methods that your doctor hasn’t mentioned to treat your child’s cancer or relieve symptoms. These methods can include vitamins, herbs, and special diets, or other methods such as acupuncture or massage, to name a few.
Complementary methods refer to treatments that are used along with regular medical care. Alternative treatments are used instead of a doctor’s medical treatment. Although some of these methods might be helpful in relieving symptoms or helping your child feel better, many have not been proven to work. Some might even be dangerous.
Be sure to talk to your child’s cancer care team about any method you are thinking about using. They can help you learn what is known (or not known) about the method, which can help you make an informed decision. See Complementary and Alternative Medicine to learn more.
Help getting through cancer treatment
Your child’s cancer care team will be your first source of information and support, but there are other resources for help when you need it. Hospital- or clinic-based support services are an important part of your child’s care. These might include nursing or social work services, financial aid, nutritional advice, rehab, or spiritual help.
The American Cancer Society also has programs and services – including rides to treatment, lodging, support groups, and more – to help your child get through treatment. Call our National Cancer Information Center at 1-800-227-2345 and speak with one of our trained specialists on call 24 hours a day, every day.