Leukemia in Children

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Leukemia is a cancer of the white blood cells in the bone marrow. Young children are most likely to have a type of leukemia called acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

ALL causes the bone marrow to make too many of white blood cells. The overgrowth makes it difficult for other blood cells like red blood cells or platelets to develop. 

Leukemia in Children: Symptoms

Some symptoms of pediatric leukemia include:

  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Pale skin
  • Night sweats
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Petechiae (flat, pinpoint spots under the skin caused by bleeding)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Bone or joint pain
  • Stomach pain
  • Pain or a feeling of fullness below the ribs
  • Painless lumps in the neck, underarms, stomach or groin
  • Swelling of the liver and/or spleen

Diagnosis & Treatment at UVA   

If your doctor suspects that your child has leukemia, you will be referred to a specialist. These are some of the tests that we use to find abnormal blood cells:

  • Blood tests — assessing the number of different blood cells to look for abnormally high or low levels and tests of other substances in the blood that may indicate organ stress
  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy — to remove and test a portion of bone marrow

At UVA, we may do further tests that will guide your child’s treatment. Some of these tests may include:

  • Cytogenetic analysis—a test to look for certain changes of the chromosomes (genetic material) of the lymphocytes; certain genetic abnormalities
  • Immunophenotyping—examination of the proteins on cell surfaces and the antibodies produced by the body; to distinguish lymphoblastic from myeloid leukemia and determine types of therapy
  • Lumbar puncture —to see if leukemia has spread to spinal cord and brain
  • Chest x-ray —to look for masses in chest caused by leukemia

Treatment for Childhood Leukemia

Your doctor will discuss the best treatment plan for your child. Some options include: 

  • Chemotherapy — the use of drugs to kill cancer cells.
  • Radiation Therapy — the use of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors.
  • Chemotherapy with Stem Cell Transplant   Stem cells are immature blood cells that are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient or donor. The chemotherapy destroys the blood cells. The stem cells are then infused through the blood to restore the blood cells. It is most often used with ALL that was treated, but then returned.