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Treatment Options

Follow-up care depends on the type of leukemia and treatments used. It is very important to have a doctor check for recurrence of cancer. Even when the cancer seems to be completely destroyed, the disease sometimes returns after treatment. Follow-up care may include physical exams, blood tests, cytogenetics, x-rays, bone marrow aspiration or spinal taps.

The following treatments are used for leukemia:

Watchful Waiting

People with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and no symptoms may be able to put off treatment, thereby avoiding the side effects of treatment. It is very important to see a doctor regularly so that treatment can be started when needed. Watchful waiting comes with some risk; it may reduce the chance to control leukemia before it gets worse.

Chemotherapy

This common treatment uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Depending on the drug, chemotherapy can be given by mouth, into a vein through an IV, through a catheter or directly into the cerebrospinal fluid. Chemotherapy kills fast-growing leukemia cells, but the drug can also harm normal cells that divide rapidly, often causing side effects.

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. Targeted therapies treat the cancer cells with less harm to normal cells. Imatinib (Gleevec) was the first targeted therapy approved for chronic myeloid leukemia, but other drugs are now used as well.

Immunotherapy

This treatment improves the body’s natural defenses against leukemia. One type is a substance called a monoclonal antibody. It 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 a person with leukemia 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, healthy stem cells are given through a vein to replace the ones destroyed by the treatment. Stem cells may come from the person with leukemia or from donated stem cells. Stem cells can come from the blood, bone marrow or an umbilical cord.