Treatment

There are several treatment options for patients with leukemia, depending on the type of leukemia, the patient’s age and general health, and whether leukemia was found in the cerebrospinal fluid. Patients have time for second opinions and to talk through all of their options with their doctors and develop a treatment plan that best fits their needs.

Patients with acute leukemia need treatment right away to destroy signs of leukemia in the body and make symptoms go away. Many people with acute leukemia can be cured.

Patients with chronic leukemia with no symptoms may not need treatment right away. Not getting treatment right away is called watchful waiting. When treatment is needed for chronic leukemia, it can often control the disease and related symptoms.

Chronic leukemia can seldom be cured with chemotherapy, but stem cell transplants offer some patients with chronic leukemia a chance for a cure. Many patients have one or more of the following treatments:

Watchful Waiting - People with chronic lymphocytic leukemia who do not experience symptoms may be able to put off treatment, therefore avoiding side effects of treatment. These patients have regular checkups and can start treatment if symptoms occur.

Watchful waiting is not without risks. It may reduce the chance to control leukemia before it gets worse.

Chemotherapy - This treatment uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Many leukemia patients have this treatment. Chemotherapy can be given by mouth, into a vein through an IV, through a catheter, or directly into the cerebrospinal fluid The side effects depend mainly on which drugs are given and how much.

Chemotherapy kills fast-growing leukemia cells, but the drug can also harm normal cells that divide rapidly.

Targeted Therapy - People with chronic myeloid leukemia and some with acute lymphoblastic leukemia may receive targeted therapies, or drugs that block the growth of leukemia cells. Imatinib (Gleevec) tablets were the first targeted therapy approved for chronic myeloid leukemia, but other drugs are now used as well.

Biological Therapy - This is treatment that improves the body’s natural defenses against leukemia. One type is a substance called a monoclonal antibody. This substance is given by IV infusion and binds to leukemia cells, killing them or helping the immune system destroy them.

Radiation Therapy - Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to kill leukemia cells. Some people receive radiation from a large machine aimed at the spleen, brain, or other parts of the body where leukemia cells have collected. Others may receive radiation that is directed to the whole body.

Stem Cell Transplant - This procedure allows patients to be treated with high doses of drugs, radiation or both. These high doses destroy leukemia and normal blood cells in the bone marrow. After the high dose of treatment, the patient receives healthy stem cells through a large vein, and these cells replace the ones destroyed by the treatment.

Stem cells may come from the patient him/herself or from someone who donates stem cells to the patient. Stem cells can come from the blood, bone marrow, or an umbilical cord.

Follow-up care for patients with leukemia depends on the type of the disease and the treatments they have received. Follow-up care is very important so your doctor can check for recurrence of cancer.

Even when the cancer seems to be completely destroyed, the disease sometimes returns because undetected leukemia cells remained somewhere in the body after treatment. Follow-up care may include physical exams, blood tests, cytogenetics, x-rays, bone marrow aspiration, or spinal taps.


Social networking and online support groups are important tools. Reaching out to others who have or have had similar experiences can provide you with valuable insights. Check out Cancer Support Community's The Living Room for more information on clinically facilitated support online. 

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