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Leukemia is the most common cancer in children and teens, accounting for almost 1 out of 3 cancers. Most childhood leukemias are acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). Most of the remaining cases are acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Chronic leukemias are rare in children.
Leukemia is a cancer that starts in early blood-forming cells found in the bone marrow, the soft inner part of certain bones. Most often, leukemia is a cancer of the white blood cells, but some leukemias start in other blood cell types. Childhood leukemia, the most common type of cancer in children and teens, is a cancer of the white blood cells. Cancer starts when cells start to grow out of control. Cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancer. Abnormal white blood cells form in the bone marrow. They quickly travel through the bloodstream and crowd out healthy cells. This raises the body's chances of infection and other problems.
Symptoms of leukemia often prompt a visit to the doctor. This is a good thing, because it means the disease may be found earlier than it otherwise would. Early diagnosis can lead to more successful treatment.
As tough as it is for a child to have cancer, it's good to know that most children and teens with childhood leukemia can be successfully treated.
Any of the blood-forming cells from the bone marrow can turn into a leukemia cell. Once this change takes place, the leukemia cells no longer mature in a normal way. Leukemia cells might reproduce quickly, and not die when they should. These cells build up in the bone marrow, crowding out normal cells. In most cases, the leukemia cells spill into the bloodstream fairly quickly. From there they can go to other parts of the body such as the lymph nodes, spleen, liver, central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), testicles, or other organs, where they can keep other cells in the body from doing their jobs.
To determine whether a child has leukemia, a doctor will do a physical examination to check for signs of infection, anemia, abnormal bleeding, and swollen lymph nodes. The doctor will also feel the child's abdomen to check the liver and spleen because these organs can become enlarged by some childhood cancers. The doctor also will take a medical history by asking about symptoms, past health, the family's health history, medications the child is taking, allergies, and other issues. Kids who are diagnosed with leukemia are referred to a pediatric oncologist, a specialist in childhood cancer, for evaluation, treatment, and close monitoring.
Treatment for leukemia usually is carried out by a team of specialists, including nurses, social workers, psychologists, surgeons, and other health care professionals. Certain patient features (such as age and initial white blood cell count) are used to help doctors decide which type of treatment will provide the best chance for a cure. Chemotherapy is the main treatment for childhood leukemia, although the dosages and drug combinations may differ. Chemo can be given by mouth, into a vein, or into the spinal fluid.
With the proper treatment, the outlook for kids and teens who are diagnosed with leukemia is quite good. Most childhood leukemias have very high remission rates, with some up to 90% (remission means there is no longer evidence of cancer cells in the body). Overall cure rates differ depending on the specific features of the disease. And the majority of kids can be cured of the disease (meaning that they are in permanent remission).