Acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children is a bone marrow cancer that causes excess production of lymphocytes. The following health care article will discuss information related to childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and help you understand this common cancer type in children.
One of the most common childhood cancers is leukemia. Of all the cases of blood cancer in children, most are acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). It commonly occurs in children between the ages of 1 to 4 years. Another fact about acute lymphoblastic leukemia is that it affects boys more than girls.
Information on Leukemia
It is important to understand the pathology of leukemia, as it will help you understand more about ALL. Under normal conditions, the bone marrow produces blood stem cells. These are immature cells that will soon develop into mature blood cells. These immature blood cells can develop into myeloid cells or lymphoid cells. If it forms a myeloid cell, it can develop into three types of mature blood cells.
☛ Red blood cells: These cells have the ability to carry oxygen as well as nutrients to every part of the body.
☛ Platelets: These blood cells help in formation of blood clots and prevent excessive bleeding.
☛ White blood cells: These are cells that are also called granulocytes and help in fighting off diseases and infections.
When the immature blood cells develop into a lymphoid cell, it can further divide into any of the three types of white blood cells (leukocytes).
☛ B lymphocytes: These are WBCs’ that produce antibodies against infecting agents.
☛ T Lymphocytes: These cells help B lymphocytes in the production of antibodies.
☛ Natural killer cells: As the name suggests, these are cells that attack viruses and cancer cells within the body.
So, what do these blood cells have to do with leukemia? When the stem cells develop into too many lymphoblasts or lymphocytes, it leads to leukemia. These cells are known as leukemic cells and these cells do not have the ability to fight off infections. These cells just keep dividing and increasing in number. As their number increases, other normal blood cells like RBCs, platelets and healthy WBCs do not have enough space to survive.
Thus, the patient becomes anemic, suffers from recurrent infections and bleeds easily. This leads to acute lymphoblastic leukemia and one needs to seek immediate medical attention for this cancer. Another important fact to be noted is that this cancer is also known as acute lymphocytic leukemia as well as acute lymphoid leukemia.
ALL is a result of errors in the cell DNA. These errors cause the cell to continue to grow and divide. These cells have longer life span than normal cells and therefore, their number just keeps increasing. This causes the normal blood count to be disturbed. The immature cells produce cells that develop into leukemic white blood cells. These lymphoblasts do not function normally and in the end they take up space for the healthy cells. The exact cause of this DNA mutation is not yet known. Thus, one cannot say what triggers ALL in children.
The leukemic cells, like all blood cells, can travel all around the body. Depending on the number of leukemic cells, children begin to show different symptoms. Generally, the number of healthy red blood cells, platelets and white blood cells is far lesser than leukemic cells. Thus, these children appear pale, weak and anemic. Apart from this, other symptoms include:
☛ Easy bruising
☛ Bleeding from gums and severe nosebleed
☛ Pain in the joints and bone
☛ Formation of painless lumps in the neck, armpits, stomach and groin
☛ Tiredness and fatigue
☛ Loss of appetite
☛ Petechiae (flat, tiny red spots under the skin due to bleeding)
☛ Shortness of breath
☛ Recurrent infections
Many times these symptoms are similar to common flu. However, if the child shows persistent symptoms and does not seem to improve in health, take him to a doctor for further diagnosis.
If the doctor suspects ALL, he will conduct a complete blood count (CBC). This will help in monitoring the levels of RBCs, WBCs, platelets and abnormal leukemic cells. Apart from this, he may even conduct bone marrow aspiration, biopsy as well as cytogenetic analysis for changes in the bone marrow.
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia treatment includes induction therapy where the leukemic cells in bone marrow and blood are killed. The child may be given chemotherapy drugs for about 2 to 3 years. In some cases targeted drug therapy, radiation therapy, as well as stem cell transplant, is conducted for treating ALL.
It has been observed that about 90% cases of the acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children have been successfully treated. Most children remain leukemia free for 10 years and even more. Thus, this condition is found to have better prognosis, if detected early and treated soon.