Childhood leukemia is cancer of the blood. It is the most common cancer in young people, accounting for an estimated 1 in 3 cancers in teenagers and children, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). It’s important to note, however, that the actual number of American children affected each year is small, or about 3,500, according to the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital (LPCH) at Stanford.
While different leukemia types exist, they begin in the body’s bone marrow. This soft area of bone is where white and red blood cells as well as platelets are created. With leukemia, a child’s body makes too many immature white blood cells, which slows or stops the production of red blood cells. Several childhood leukemia types exist:
- Acute lymphocytic (lymphoblastic) leukemia (ALL)—The most common childhood leukemia type that affects children between the ages of 2 and 4. The type of white blood cells that this cancer affects is called lymphocytes.
- Acute myeloid (myelogenous) leukemia (AML)—The second-most common childhood leukemia type affects myeloid cells that form the blood and not lymphocytes. AML typically affects children before age 2 and in the teenage years.
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)—This cancer is very rare in children.
- Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML)—Chronic leukemias tend to occur in adults and are typically slow-growing. White blood cells may partially mature, which means a patient may not experience symptoms for years.
- Juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia (JMML)—This leukemia type occurs chiefly in children younger than age 4 (ACS). The cancer arises from the myeloid cells, but the cancer is not as fast-growing as an acute leukemia or as slow-growing as a chronic leukemia.
Symptoms associated with leukemia vary based on the leukemia type. They include:
- Abnormal bruising
- Anemia, a condition where a child does not have enough red blood cells
- Appetite loss
- Bone pain
- Joint pain
- Frequent/recurrent infections
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Trouble breathing
- Unexplained fatigue
- Unexplained weight loss
Acute leukemia symptoms may appear in days or weeks. Chronic leukemia symptoms may take years to manifest.
A physician can diagnose childhood leukemia using a variety of tests, medical history and a physical exam. Examples may include a complete blood count (CBC) that examines the number of white blood cells, red blood cells, platelets, and/or a bone marrow biopsy that measures abnormal cells.
Treatments such as blood transfusions, chemotherapy, other medications and radiation therapy can often cure acute childhood leukemia. Bone marrow and/or bone stem cell transplantation is another treatment example. However, chronic leukemia types can be harder to treat.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, February 2019
- Leukemia is a cancer type that affects the bone marrow’s ability to produce blood cells.
- An estimated 3,500 children are diagnosed with leukemia annually in the United States.
- Most childhood leukemias are acute, causing symptoms within several days to weeks of onset.
- The most common childhood leukemia type is acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), followed by acute myeloid leukemia (AML).