The most common childhood cancer is leukemia. In this article, we discuss everything you need to know about leukemia in children, from its symptoms to its treatments to what you can do at home to help your kid.
What is leukemia in children?
Leukemia is a cancer of the blood that affects the bone marrow and blood cells.
During leukemia, cancer cells grow in the bone marrow and enter the blood. The bone marrow begins producing more abnormal blood cells and fewer healthy cells. These abnormal cells are usually white blood cells that don’t mature or function properly, but can quickly reproduce.
Healthy white blood cells are responsible for fighting infections and illnesses, but the abnormal white blood cells are incapable of doing this. As a result, the patient is more susceptible to getting sick. The cancer can also spread to other parts of the body, such as the brain, spine, or liver.
How common is leukemia in children?
Leukemia is the most common form of cancer that children can develop. In the Philippines, the Department of Health states that leukemia will be responsible for 47.8% of cancer for boys and 48% for girls. Fortunately, most children diagnosed with leukemia receive successful treatments.
There are many types of leukemia, with the two most common being:
- Acute lymphoblastic leukemia
- Acute myeloid leukemia
Children can also develop rarer types of leukemia, such as:
- Chronic myelogenous leukemia
- Juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia
The type of leukemia a child can have may depend on their age. It has also been observed that leukemia is more common in boys than in girls.
Symptoms, Causes, & Risk Factors
What are the symptoms of leukemia in children?
Children with leukemia may develop symptoms from other illnesses or conditions. This is because the white blood cells cannot fight off infections and diseases. Likewise, other symptoms can be a result of low count of red blood cells (like anemia) and platelets (such as bleeding and bruising).
The common symptoms of leukemia in children are:
- Constant infections or an infection that never goes away
- Frequent fevers from infections
- Easy bruising and bleeding
- Frequent or severe nosebleeds
- Bleeding gums
- Bone or joint pain from the buildup of cancer cells on the surface of the bones or joints
- Lack of appetite and weight loss from a swollen liver and/or spleen
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Coughing or trouble breathing
- Swollen face or arms
- Rashes or gum problems
Patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) can also have:
Chloroma or granulocytic sarcoma. These are small dark spots that can resemble rashes. They are caused by AML spreading to the skin and are defined as malignant tumors.
Extreme fatigue and weakness. This is a result of the accumulation of leukemia cells in the blood, causing it to thicken and slow down when moving through the small blood vessels in the brain.
Consult your doctor or pediatrician for an official diagnosis if your child exhibits persistent symptoms. Many symptoms of leukemia can be signs of other medical conditions.
What causes leukemia in children?
Scientists are still researching on what exactly causes leukemia in children, though they have linked DNA mutations to the development of leukemia. These cause further mutations to develop in other parts of the body, such as the bone marrow, and can be inherited from the parents.
What increases my child’s risk of developing leukemia?
A combination of genetic and environmental factors can increase the risk of your child developing leukemia, including:
- Genetic disorders, such as down syndrome or Li-Fraumeni syndrome
- Inherited immune system issues like Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome and Bloom syndrome
- Having a sibling who also has leukemia
- Too much sun exposure
- Undergoing treatment for other kinds of cancer such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy
- Taking medicine to suppress the immune system after an organ transplant
Diagnosis & Treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult your doctor for more information.
How do doctors diagnose leukemia?
Since the symptoms of leukemia can resemble those of other medical conditions, it is important to consult your doctor for an official diagnosis. Unlike with other cancers, doctors classify leukemia according to groups and sub-types and do not assign stage numbers.
First, the doctor or pediatrician will examine your child’s symptoms. After the examination, your healthcare provider may recommend more tests. These tests can include:
- Complete blood counts to check for any abnormalities in the amounts and types of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets
- Bone marrow aspiration or biopsy to check for the presence of cancer cells
- Lab tests of bone and marrow samples to determine the type of leukemia present
- X-rays and ultrasounds to create images of the organs and bones
- Lymph node biopsy to check if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes
- Lumbar puncture to extract a small amount of cerebral spinal fluid and check for the presence of cancer cells in the spine and brain
How is leukemia in children treated?
Leukemia patients are treated based on the type of leukemia they have and other factors, such as medical history. Here are possible treatments for leukemia in children:
Blood transfusions. These are used to help patients who have low blood counts or persistent bleeding. Blood transfusions with red blood cells address former, while blood transfusions with platelets help stop the latter.
Antibiotics. These treat any infections that the patient might have. These infections can cause further complications if they are not dealt with first.
Chemotherapy. This is used to kill cancer cells and prevent further spreading. It can be administered in cycles through an IV or injections, or taken orally. High-dose chemotherapy can be partnered with a stem cell transplant. Here, young cells are removed from the bone marrow and then replaced after chemotherapy.
Radiation therapy. High-energy radiation is applied to damage the DNA of the cancer cells, thus preventing them from reproducing. This treatment is often reserved for leukemia cases wherein the cancer has spread to the brain, spinal fluid, or even testicles.
Targeted therapy. This involves medication that targets specific proteins of cancer cells without hurting normal cells. These proteins control how the cancer cells reproduce and spread. It often has less severe side effects. However, doctors may pair it with other types of treatment, as it is possible for cancer cells to build resistance to targeted therapy.
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage leukemia in children?
Unfortunately, there are no known methods to prevent leukemia in children. This makes identifying and treating the condition early very important. There are, however, ways to help your child through their treatments:
Encourage proper hygiene. Prevent further infections by encouraging your child and other family members to regularly wash their hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and to cover their noses and mouths when sneezing or coughing.
Make some healthy dietary changes. Cancer treatments can reduce your child’s appetite. To keep your child strong during and after treatment, create a healthy meal plan that includes fruits, vegetables, protein, carbs, and healthy fats. Similarly, keep healthy snacks and small meals on hand for when their appetite returns.
Do some low-risk exercises. Exercise is an important part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Ask your doctor if your child is strong enough to go on a short walk every day.
Give emotional support. Dealing with leukemia can be a very stressful and emotional experience for your child. Encourage them to acknowledge and express their emotions, or seek out a support group for the two of you to join.
Learn more about child health, here.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.