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Leukemia is a type of blood cancer that begins in the bone marrow, where all blood cells form. It is the most common form of childhood cancer. Leukemia affects approximately 4,000 children each year in the U.S., accounting for about 35 percent of childhood cancers.
Leukemia begins when a single bone marrow cell fails to mature into a blood cell and becomes a leukemia cell. The leukemia cells multiply and eventually fill the bone marrow, crowding out the normal blood-forming cells. This makes it hard for normal cells to do their work of fighting infection, carrying oxygen and stopping bleeding.
As the abnormal cells circulate in the blood, leukemia can spread to other parts of the body such as the lymph nodes, spleen, liver and central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord.
The exact cause of leukemia is not known. The majority of childhood leukemias are acquired diseases. This means that leukemia occurs by chance and is not inherited from a parent. Usually, children with leukemia do not have any known risk factors. Possible risk factors for leukemia include:
Although every child experiences symptoms differently, the initial symptoms of leukemia are often related to irregular bone marrow function. Symptoms may seem to occur suddenly, developing in a matter of days or weeks. Some symptoms result from too many leukemia cells. Other symptoms result from leukemia cells crowding out normal cells.
Symptoms of leukemia include:
Because symptoms of leukemia may resemble other blood disorders or medical problems, it is important to visit your child's primary care doctor if he or she is experiencing any of these symptoms.
The three types of leukemia that affect children most often are:
Pediatric cancer doctors at Riley at IU Health start with a complete medical history and physical examination of your child. The most common diagnostic tests for leukemia involve looking at samples of blood and bone marrow under a microscope. Further genetic and immunologic tests determine whether the cells are myeloid or lymphoid, which determines the type of leukemia.
Children with leukemia often require a spinal tap to test for leukemia around the brain and spine. This test looks for cancer cells in the cerebrospinal fluid (the liquid around the brain and spine).
Your child's doctor will first address symptoms such as anemia, bleeding and/or infection. Children often require blood and platelet transfusions. Your child's doctor may also use antibiotics to prevent and/or treat infections.
Chemotherapy is the key to curing leukemia. Other treatments may include radiation therapy to treat leukemia or to keep it from spreading and bone marrow transplant. Specific treatment depends on the type of leukemia:
Learn more about leukemia at these recommended online resources:
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