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Childhood Leukemia

Diagnosing Childhood Leukemia

To diagnose childhood leukemia, the doctor will take a thorough medical history and perform a physical exam. Tests are used to diagnose childhood leukemia as well as classify its type.

Initial tests may include:

  • Blood tests to measure the number of blood cells and see how they appear.
  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy, usually taken from the pelvic bone, to confirm a diagnosis of leukemia.
  • Lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, to check for spread of leukemia cells in the fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord.

A pathologist examines cells from the blood tests under a microscope. This specialist also checks bone marrow samples for the number of blood-forming cells and fat cells.

Other tests may be done to help determine which type of leukemia your child may have. These tests also help the doctors know how likely the leukemia is to respond to treatment.

Certain tests may be repeated later to see how your child responds to treatment.

Treatments for Childhood Leukemia

Have a "heart-to-heart" talk with your child's doctor and other members of the cancer care team about the best options for your child. Treatment depends mainly upon the type of leukemia as well as other factors.

The good news is the survival rates for most types of childhood leukemia have increased over time. And treatment at special centers for children and teens provides the advantages of specialized care. In addition, childhood cancers tend to respond to treatment better than adult cancers do, and children's bodies often tolerate treatment better.

Before cancer treatment begins, sometimes a child needs treatment to address illness complications. For example, changes in blood cells can lead to infections or severe bleeding and may affect the amount of oxygen reaching the body's tissues. Treatment may involve antibiotics, blood transfusions, or other measures to fight infection.

Chemotherapy is the main treatment for childhood leukemia. Your child will receive anticancer drugs by mouth, or into a vein or the spinal fluid. To keep leukemia from returning, there may be maintenance therapy that occurs in cycles over a period of two or three years.

Targeted therapy is also sometimes used for leukemia. This therapy targets specific parts of cancer cells, working differently than standard chemotherapy. Effective for certain types of childhood leukemia, targeted therapy often has less severe side effects.

Other types of treatment may include radiation therapy, which uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. It may be used to help prevent or treat the spread of leukemia to other parts of the body. Surgery is rarely used to treat childhood leukemia.

If standard treatment is likely to be less effective, a stem cell transplant may be the best option. It involves a transplant of blood-forming stem cells after whole body radiation combined with high-dose chemotherapy to first destroy the child's bone marrow.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Sujana Movva, MD on July 30, 2013

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