What is acute lymphoblastic leukemia?
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a cancer that affects the white blood cells. These cells fight infection and help protect the body against disease.
Patients with ALL have too many immature white blood cells in their bone marrow. These cells crowd out normal white blood cells. Without enough normal white blood cells, the body has a harder time fighting infections.
ALL affects a type of white blood cell called lymphocytes, causing them to build up in the liver, spleen and lymph nodes.
How common is acute lymphoblastic leukemia?
ALL is the most common type of childhood cancer. It most often occurs in children ages 3 to 5 and affects slightly more boys than girls. ALL is most common in Hispanic children, followed by those of white and African-American descent.
About 3,000 people younger than age 20 are found to have ALL each year in the United States.
Siblings of children with leukemia have a slightly higher risk of developing ALL, but the rate is still quite low: no more than 1 in 500.
What are the symptoms of acute lymphoblastic leukemia?
Symptoms of ALL include:
- Frequent infections
- Easy bruising
- Bleeding that is hard to stop
- Flat, dark-red skin spots (petechiae) due to bleeding under the skin
- Pain in the bones or joints
- Lumps in the neck, underarm, stomach or groin
- Pain or fullness below the ribs
- Weakness, fatigue
- Loss of appetite
- Shortness of breath
How is acute lymphoblastic leukemia treated?
Expect your child’s ALL treatment to include three phases:
- Induction — to kill the leukemia cells in the blood and bone marrow and put the disease into remission (a return to normal blood cell counts)
- Consolidation/intensification — to rid the body of any remaining cells that could begin to grow and cause the leukemia to return (relapse)
- Maintenance — to destroy any cancer cells that might have survived the first two phases
Four types of treatment may be used during any of these treatment phases:
- Chemotherapy (“chemo”) — uses powerful medicines to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing (dividing) and making more cancer cells.
- Chemo may be injected into the bloodstream, so that it can travel throughout the body.
- Some chemo may be given by mouth.
- Combination therapy uses more than one type of chemo at a time.
- Stem cell transplant — includes replacing blood-forming cells in the bone marrow that have been killed by chemo and/or radiation therapy:
- A stem cell transplant gives the patient new blood cells from a donor’s blood or bone marrow. These cells grow into healthy blood cells to replace the ones the patient lost.
- Some types of stem cell transplants may be called “bone marrow transplants” because the cells come from the donor’s bone marrow.
- Radiation therapy — uses high-energy X-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing.
- Targeted therapy — uses medicines or other treatments that target and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells.
What are the survival rates for acute lymphoblastic leukemia?
- About 98% of children with ALL go into remission within weeks after starting treatment.
- About 90% of those children can be cured. Patients are considered cured after 10 years in remission.
Why choose St. Jude for your child’s ALL treatment?
- St. Jude is the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center devoted solely to children.
- St. Jude has created more clinical trials for cancer than any other children’s hospital in the United States.
- The nurse-to-patient ratio at St. Jude is unmatched—averaging 1:3 in hematology and oncology, and 1:1 in the Intensive Care Unit.
- The hospital’s leukemia studies have pioneered the way the world treats childhood leukemia.
- St. Jude patients with ALL have a 94% survival rate.
- St. Jude was the first hospital in the U.S. to remove cranial irradiation from treatment for ALL (and, later, for acute myeloid leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma) without harming survival rates.
- St. Jude researchers found unexpected genetic changes in a deadly type of childhood leukemia called ETP-ALL that could change diagnosis and treatment for children with this disease. The finding was made possible by the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital-Washington University Pediatric Cancer Genome Project. This project is uncovering the genetic basis for some of the deadliest childhood cancers.
- St. Jude pioneered outpatient clinical trials for children with leukemia, reducing the need for inpatient stays.
Associated Clinical Trials
The St. Jude website is designed for educational purposes only and is not engaged in rendering medical advice or professional services. The information provided through this site should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or a disease. It is not a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you may have a health problem, you should consult your health care provider.