Leukaemia in children
- Why does leukaemia occur in children?
- What are the symptoms of leukaemia?
- How can leukaemia be treated?
- How is a bone marrow transplant carried
- What is the outlook for leukaemia in
- Where can parents of children with
leukaemia get information and support?
What is leukaemia?
Leukaemia is the medical name for cancer
of the blood. It is a very serious illness in which the marrow inside the bodys
bones produces a large number of abnormal bone marrow cells. The remaining healthy
cells have less space in which to develop, which means that less red blood cells
and platelets are produced. There are many types of leukaemia, as many as the
different types of marrow cell affected.
Leukaemia is classified as either chronic
or acute, depending on the type of disease and how long it takes to develop.
Chronic leukaemia progresses more slowly. Acute leukaemia attacks immature bone
marrow cells and has a much more sudden onset. It is the rarer form of leukaemia,
but unfortunately it tends to be the form of leukaemia most common in children.
Leukaemia is also classified according to
the particular type of white cell that is proliferating abnormally. The commonest
type of leukaemia in childhood is caused by abnormal proliferation of cells
derived from lymphocytes or from lymphoblasts and thus the condition is called
acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.
The causes of leukaemia are unknown, but
the disease seems to afflict more males than females in Ireland in 1995,
204 males compared to 104 females were diagnosed with leukaemia.
Why does leukaemia occur to children?
The causes of leukaemia are not known, but
the seriousness of the disease has led many cancer research specialists to focus
their efforts on this area. It is hoped that future genetic research may cast
some light on the origins of this disease.
What are the symptoms of leukaemia?
Leukaemia usually requires blood tests to
confirm diagnosis, but it does manifest symptoms, very suddenly in the case
of acute leukaemia. The things to look out for include:
- Repeated niggling infections, such as
chest infections or sore throats
- Pale skin, due to anaemia
- Unexplained or easy bruising
- Bleeding gums
- Bone tenderness
- Weight loss
- Night sweats and fevers
- Enlarged lymph nodes.
Obviously, many of these symptoms can be
found in children who are not suffering from leukaemia. However, if your child
exhibits more than one of these symptoms, especially if they appear suddenly,
you should consult your GP. It is most likely that your child has a minor illness.
If your doctor is concerned, arrangements will be made for blood tests to check
How can leukaemia be treated?
Leukaemia is a difficult disease to treat,
as it involves a disruption of the bodys ability to produce new blood
cells. Usually, patients will be referred to a specialist clinic located in
one of the major Irish teaching hospitals.
Treatment usually takes the form of chemotherapy,
which can be given as pills or an injection. A catheter (tube) is usually inserted
into a large vein near the heart under anaesthesia and the anti-cancer drugs
are given through it. Each course of chemotherapy lasts a number of days and
the side-effects may cause discomfort. Chemotherapy attacks a proportion of
healthy bone marrow cells as well as the cancerous ones, and can deplete the
patients strength and ability to fight infection. Therefore, strong antibiotics
may also be given to fight infections.
Your child may have to stay in hospital to
recover from chemotherapy treatment, and may receive blood transfusions to make
up for blood lost through bleeding. Transfusions can also be given through the
catheter described above. Chemotherapy may cause vomiting and nausea, and can
lead to hair loss. None of these symptoms are permanent, though it may be a
few months before hair will grow back. Baldness caused by chemotherapy can lead
to a loss of self-esteem in many children, especially girls. However, you will
find that hospital staff are extremely supportive of both you and your child
during this difficult time.
Radiotherapy may also be given in many cases.
In certain cases, the leukaemia may warrant
a bone marrow transplant.
How is a bone marrow transplant carried
The marrow cells used are removed from a
donor and replaced in the individual with leukaemia, and must be as close a
match as possible.
Occasionally, the cells are those of the
child themselves (an autologous transplant), stored in advance by the hospital.
Often, the donated cells will come from a close relative or an unrelated donor
(an allogeneic transplant). A full sibling (brother or sister) is usually the
Because not everyone has a relative whose
bone marrow cells match their own, a bone marrow transplant registry is in place,
based at the Irish Blood Transfusion Service headquarters in Dublin. Volunteer
donors attend a blood transfusion clinic for tests, and their marrow cell details
are stored on a registry until needed or until the would-be donor is 55 years
of age. These marrow donations are known as MUD (matched unrelated donor) transplants.
If you would like more information on becoming a bone marrow donor, contact
The National Bone Marrow Registry at:
40 Mespil Road,
Tel: (01) 6603333
Fax: (01) 6603419.
You can also contact them via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is the outlook for leukaemia in children?
While leukaemia is a serious condition, the
outlook for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (the commonest type in children) is
better than that for acute myeloblastic leukaemia and it is better for children
than for adults.
Where can children with leukaemia get
information and support?
If your child is diagnosed with leukaemia,
you can be sure that you will receive information and support from the hospital
in which you are treated. Chemotherapy treatment is arduous, especially for
children, and medical staff are very sympathetic and will help in so far as
The Irish Cancer Society offers information
and support to all people with cancer, including leukaemia, and their families.
They have a website at www.cancer.ie
and run a telephone cancer helpline at 1800 200700. One support group they run
is called CanTeen, and is aimed at teenage cancer patients and their families
and friends. Parents of children with cancer may be interested in a support
group called CancerPlus, which offers help and support to parents.
The Childrens Leukaemia Foundation
raises funds for research into leukaemia in children. They publish a quarterly
newsletter and occasionally represent parents if requested. The Project can
be contacted at:
16 Herbert Place,