Childhood leukemia is a rare but serious condition that affects young children. This specific form of cancer attacks blood cells, preventing healthy cells from forming and functioning properly. Since the mid-20th century, treatment for childhood leukemia has vastly improved, significantly increasing the likelihood of successful treatment.
There are two main varieties of childhood leukemia. The most common form attacks the bone marrow and is called acute lymphocytic leukemia or ALL. About one-fourth of childhood cases affect the platelets or red and white blood cells. Conditions that fall under this category are referred to as acute myelogenus leukemia or AML. Chronic forms of the disease, though common in adults, are very rare in children.
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Diagnosing childhood leukemia is done through blood and bone tests, but detecting it can be trickier. Signs of the disease are often similar to those experienced during common childhood illnesses, such as the flu or common cold. Symptoms can include consistent fatigue, unusual paleness, fever, headache, easy bruising or severe pain caused by minor injuries, swollen lymph nodes, and unexplained appetite loss. If your child exhibits these symptoms persistently, you may wish to contact a doctor for testing.
If a blood test shows abnormal cells or a low blood cell count, further testing may be needed to diagnose the disease accurately. Samples of bone marrow may be taken from the hipbones, or a lumbar or spinal tap may be done to test the fluid around the spine. In rare cases, a doctor may also surgically remove samples from the lymph nodes for testing.
The treatment options for childhood leukemia are similar to those for other forms of cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation are both commonly used to destroy cancerous cells in the hopes that healthy cells will replace them. Children suffering from AML or ALL may also be put on a variety of drugs to help remove any cancerous cells missed by other treatments. For those with a lower chance of survival, a bone marrow or stem cell transplant may be used to allow doctors to intensify the chemotherapy. By transfusing the patient with healthy cells, their body may be able to recover better from chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
There are a variety of factors that may contribute to the development of childhood leukemia, but no definite cause of the disease has been established. Scientific studies have shown that children with certain inherited genetic disorders, such as Down's Syndrome, have a much higher chance of developing leukemia in childhood. Children with a sibling who has leukemia are also more likely to develop it themselves. Studies suggest that children who suffer exposure to high levels of radiation can also have an increased possibility of getting childhood leukemia.
While leukemia is a serious and sometimes fatal illness, it is not always insurmountable. Incredible amounts of research and the development of new treatments have increased the odds of recovery enormously. As with almost all conditions, the earlier leukemia is discovered, the more likely the chance of recovery and survival. If you are concerned that a child in your life may be developing leukemia, contact a doctor to have blood tests run. While cancer is almost impossible to prevent, the genius of human society is in its ability to treat and cure disease, and many children who suffered from leukemia have gone on to live full, cancer-free lives.