Leukaemia in children: Everything you need to know

What are the first signs of leukaemia in a child?

The first signs of leukaemia are tiredness and weakness, shortness of breath, pale complexion, persistent fever or infection, nosebleeds and weight loss.

What is the most common leukaemia in children?

Acute Lymphoblastic leukaemia is the most common leukaemia in children.

What is acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL)?

Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) is when the bone marrow overproduces white blood cells called lymphocytes. These abnormal cells overcrowd the bone marrow, and can also spill out to build up in parts of the lymphatic system (the spleen or lymph nodes) and in the liver.

While normal white blood cells are involved in fighting infection, these abnormal white blood cells are immature and aren’t able to function properly. People with ALL are therefore at high risk of infection.

This is the most common leukaemia in children. About 7 to 8 out of 10 children with leukaemia have this type. ALL affects the lymphoid stem cells and comes on very rapidly.

Is leukaemia in a child curable?

Depending on the stage of the cancer when it is diagnosed it can be treatable. Chemotherapy is the most common treatment for children with leukaemia. It involves using medicines to destroy the cancer cells. This therapy can be given over several years in phases. Most children with ALL receive chemotherapy in 3 doses over 1 to 3 years. 

Other treatments can involve targeted drugs specifically targeted to that cancer. ALL usually includes a group of drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors which are normally used. These drugs work by blocking a protein that leukaemia cells need to grow and divide. 

CAR-T therapy is another therapy which can be used. It is a type of immunotherapy that changes your child’s own T-cells so they can attack the cancer cells. Currently, CAR-T therapy is only used for some forms of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL).

How does a child with leukaemia act?

A child with leukaemia will act tired and fatigued, and may be less energetic than other children. They may also experience regular bruising, nosebleeds or wounds that do not heal.

Does childhood leukaemia show up in blood tests?

Blood tests can be used to check blood cell counts which can inform whether cancer is present. Certain types of leukaemia also have certain enzymes associated with them that can be seen in a blood test, for instance, the enzyme lactate dehydrogenase is usually higher in people with AML (acute myeloid leukaemia)

What age do most kids get leukaemia?

Most children with ALL are between two and four years old.

What is the survival rate of a child with leukaemia?

The survival rate for a child aged 0-4 with Leaukaemia five years post diagnosis is 90.5%, for children aged 5-9 it’s 92.1% and from 10-14 its 84.1%.

ACRF awarded a $2.5M grant to the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) and the University of Adelaide’s adjacent Adelaide Health and Medical Sciences building to help establish the ACRF Centre for Integrated Cancer Systems Biology. The state-of-the-art facility will bring together next generation technologies to transform patient outcomes through the delivery of targeted and personalised cancer therapy. It will target five critically important cancer streams – chronic myeloid leukaemia, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, multiple myeloma, prostate cancer and colorectal cancer.

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