Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell. With ALL, the bone marrow makes too many of these cells. ALL begins in immature lymphocytes. It progresses very quickly. It may occur at any age, but is most common in children. It is also common as the end stage of a chronic leukemia of adults called chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Childhood ALL was one of the first cancers for which effective chemotherapy was developed. ALL remains highly curable today.
Cancer occurs when cells in the body become abnormal. They divide without control or order. Leukemia is cancer of the white blood cells and their parent cells. Leukemia cells do not function normally. They cannot do what normal blood cells do. In this case they can not fight infections. This means that the person is more likely to become infected with viruses or bacteria. The cancerous cells also overgrow the bone marrow. This forces other normal components, like platelets out. Platelets are needed to help the blood clot. As a result, people with leukemia may bleed more easily.
The cause of ALL is unknown. Research shows that certain risk factors are associated with the disease.
The following factors increase your chance of developing ALL:
- Sex: male
- Race: white
- Age: children and elderly (adults older than 70)
- Previous chemotherapy or radiation therapy treatment
- Exposure to atomic bomb radiation or nuclear reactor accident
- Exposure to toxic chemicals such as benzene (common in agriculture, dye works, and paint manufacturing and use)
- Certain genetic disorders, such as Down’s syndrome, Bloom syndrome, Fanconi’s anemia, ataxia-telangiectasia, neurofibromatosis, Shwachman syndrome, IgA deficiency, and congenital X-linked agammaglobulinemia
The following risk factors are specific to childhood ALL:
- Having a brother or sister with leukemia
- Race: white or Hispanic
- Living in the United States
- Exposure to x-rays before birth
- Exposure to radiation
- Previous chemotherapy or other treatment that weakens the immune system
- Certain genetic disorders (see above)
These may be caused by other, less serious health conditions. You should see a doctor if you or your child is experiencing:
- Paleness (a sign of anemia)
- 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
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor may also check for swelling of the liver, spleen, or lymph nodes. You will likely be referred to an oncologist. This is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer.
Tests may include the following:
- Blood tests—to check for changes in the number or appearance of different types of blood cells
- Bone marrow aspiration—removal of a sample of liquid bone marrow to test for cancer cells
- Bone marrow biopsy —removal of a sample of liquid bone marrow and a small piece of bone to test for cancer cells
- Spinal tap —removal of a small amount of cerebrospinal fluid to check for cancer cells
- Routine microscopic exam—examination of a sample of blood, bone marrow, lymph node tissue, or cerebrospinal fluid
- Bone, blood marrow, lymph node tissue, or cerebrospinal fluid tests—to distinguish among types of leukemia
- Cytogenetic analysis—a test to look for certain changes of the chromosomes (genetic material) of the lymphocytes; certain genetic abnormalities include:
- Relocation of genetic material from one chromosome to another
- Presence of a particular gene
- Presence of a variant gene, which controls an enzyme that influences folate metabolism
- 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
- Chest x-ray —x-rays of the chest that may detect signs of lung infection or enlarged lymph nodes in the chest
- CT scan —a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of structures inside the body
- MRI scan —a test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of structures inside the body
- Gallium scan and Bone scan —injection of a radioactive chemical into the bloodstream to detect areas of cancer or infection
- Ultrasound —a test that uses sound waves to examine masses and organs inside the body
Talk with your doctor about the best plan for you. Treatment of ALL is done is two phases. First remission induction therapy to kill leukemia cells. Then maintenance therapy to kill any remaining leukemia cells. Cells left behind could grow and cause a relapse. Treatment options include:
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It may be given by pill, injection, and via a catheter. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body. It kills mostly cancer cells, but also some healthy cells.
Clinical trials are now underway to test drugs. One drug is imatinib (Gleevec). This drug is used to treat chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). It helps to prevent the function of genes associated with ALL.
Some ALL may spread to the brain and spinal cord. In this case, intrathecal chemotherapy may be used. Chemotherapy drugs are placed directly into the spinal column.
Radiation therapy is the use of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. For ALL, external radiation therapy is used. The radiation is directed at the tumor from outside the body. This type of treatment is used for ALL that has or may spread to the brain and spinal cord.
Chemotherapy With Stem Cell Transplant
Chemotherapy is followed by a transplantation of stem cells (immature blood cells). These will replace blood-forming cells destroyed by cancer treatment. Stem cells are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient or donor. They are then infused into the patient.
This process is still being tested in clinical trials. This is the use of medications or substances made by the body. The substance is used to increase or restore the body’s natural defenses against cancer. This type of therapy is also called biological response modifier therapy. Sometimes, very specific (monoclonal) antibodies are developed to target the leukemia cells specifically. Currently, monoclonal antibody therapy is restricted to clinical trails and not generally available.
Possible Development of New Cancers
People treated for ALL in their youth may have a risk of cancer later in life. A recent study found that they are more likely than the general population to develop a secondary cancer. The exact type of cancer can vary. It is important that people that have had ALL are carefully watched for new cancer development. These screenings should be carried out through their lifetime.
There are no guidelines for preventing ALL since its cause is unknown.