What is Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia?

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  • Written By: N. Madison
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 25 March 2020
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Acute lymphocytic leukemia is a cancerous disease that is potentially deadly. This disease affects a person's blood and bone marrow, causing the body to make immature white blood cells in excessive numbers. These cells, which are called lymphocytes, are found in the blood, bone marrow, lymph nodes and other organs in the body. This type of cancer progresses quickly and affects immature cells, but does not affect mature blood cells.

Also referred to as acute lymphoblastic leukemia or acute childhood leukemia, this disease is caused by problems in the cell DNA during cell growth. These problems tell the cells to continue to grow and divide when they should not do so. When this happens, the production of cells goes wrong. The abnormal cells do not function properly; they build up instead. No one knows for sure what causes these mutations to happen, but doctors agree that they are not inherited.

Children are the most likely victims of acute lymphocytic leukemia, especially those between three and seven years old. Chances are usually good that treatments will be successful in children. Although acute lymphocytic leukemia is not as common in adults, it does occur in some people who have reached adulthood. When an adult is diagnosed with the disease, the chances of successful treatment are not as good. It is possible for both children and adults to experience a relapse of the disease, meaning cancerous cells are found again after a period of remission.


This type of leukemia causes a range of symptoms, such as fever, more frequent infections, nosebleeds, loss of appetite, weight loss, bleeding gums, weakness, fatigue and lumps in the neck, underarm, stomach and groin. The lumps are caused by swollen lymph nodes. Sometimes people mistake these symptoms as the flu or another type of infection. However, a person should call her doctor if these symptoms do not improve as they would probably do if caused by the flu.

There are four different phases of treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia. Induction therapy is used to destroy cancer cells that are found in the blood and the bone marrow. Consolidation therapy is used to kill the the leukemia cells found in the brain and spinal cord. Maintenance therapy is aimed at stopping cancer cells from regrowing. For preventative treatment to the spinal cord, treatment focuses on any leukemia cells that may be in the central nervous system.



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As long as the patient doesn't have any of the mutations, like the Philadelphia gene, ALL treatments in children are usually very successful. St. Jude's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, reports an average 95 percent 5-year survival rate for ALL. This is up from about 4 percent in 1962, when the hospital opened. So, treatment for ALL is getting better all the time.

One aspect of treating young ALL patients is checking up on them as they grow up, for complications related to the high chemotherapy doses, or radiation treatments they received. Some children develop cardiac issues, depending on their age at diagnosis and chemo drugs they received.

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