About Childhood A.L.L.

What is leukemia?

Leukemia is cancer of the blood and develops in the bone marrow. The bone marrow is the soft, spongy center of certain bones that produces the three major blood cells: white blood cells to fight infection; red blood cells that carry oxygen; and platelets that help with blood clotting and stop bleeding. When a child has leukemia, the bone marrow, for an unknown reason, begins to make white blood cells that do not mature correctly, but continue to reproduce themselves. Normal, healthy cells only reproduce when there is enough space for them to fit. The body can regulate the production of cells by sending signals when to stop. With leukemia, these cells do not respond to the signals to stop and reproduce, regardless of space available.

These abnormal cells reproduce very quickly and do not function as healthy white blood cells to help fight infection. When the immature white blood cells, called blasts, begin to crowd out other healthy cells in the bone marrow, the child experiences the symptoms of leukemia (i.e., infections, anemia, bleeding).

Who is affected by leukemia?

Leukemia is the most common form of cancer in childhood. It affects approximately 3,500 children each year in the US, accounting for about 30 percent of childhood cancers.

There are different types of leukemia. According to the American Cancer Society, acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is the type of leukemia that most commonly affects children, most often between the ages of 2 and 4 years. Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) is the second most common form of leukemia in children. AML generally occurs by the age of 2 years, and is not often seen in older children until the teenage years. AML is the most common type of acute leukemia in adults. The chronic forms of leukemia are rarely seen in children.

What causes leukemia in children?

The majority of childhood leukemias are acquired genetic diseases. This means that gene mutations and chromosome abnormalities in cells occur sporadically (by chance) and are not inherited from a parent.

The immune system plays an important role in protecting the body from diseases, and possibly cancer. An alteration or defect in the immune system may increase the risk for developing leukemia. Factors such as exposure to certain viruses, environmental factors, chemical exposures, and various infections have been associated with damage to the immune system.

With the exception of specific genetic syndromes, little is known about the causes of childhood leukemia.

ACUTE LYMPHOCYTIC LEUKEMIA (ALL)

Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), also called lymphoblastic or lymphoid, accounts for most of the childhood leukemias. In this form of the disease, the lymphocyte cell line is affected. The lymphocytes normally fight infection. With acute lymphocytic leukemia, the bone marrow makes too many of these lymphocytes and they do not mature correctly. The lymphocytes overproduce, thus, crowding out other blood cells. Immature blood cells (blasts) do not work properly to fight infection. Acute leukemia can occur over a short period of days to weeks. Chromosome abnormalities (extra chromosomes and structural changes in the chromosome material) are present in the majority of ALL patients.

Information for this page acquired from http://www.lpch.org/DiseaseHealthInfo/HealthLibrary/oncology/leukemia.html

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