Childhood cancer articles / 10 Jan, 2022

Everything you need to know about childhood leukaemia

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Understanding childhood leukaemia

According to the World Health Organization, 184 children between the ages of 0 to 19 years were diagnosed with cancer in Singapore in 2020.1

What is childhood leukaemia?

Bone marrow is the ‘factory’ in the spongy part of our bones which makes many different cells. These include:

  • White blood cells which help fight infections and diseases
  • Red blood cells (haemoglobin) which carry oxygen throughout our body and give you energy
  • Platelets are cells which helps blood to clot and prevent bleeding

Leukaemia starts when a young white blood cell ‘misbehaves’, grows out of control and crowds out the healthy cells. This cell is called the leukaemia cell or ‘blast’. Blasts can also destroy healthy cells around them. Because leukaemia starts in the bone marrow where all cells are made, it is known as a blood cancer.

What are the common signs and symptoms?

As leukaemia cells crowd out or destroy healthy cells, you will see signs and symptoms of leukaemia such as:

  • Persistent fever or frequent infections (low white blood cell)
  • Looking pale, tired or easily fatigued (low red blood cells)
  • Flat red spots under the skin called petechiae
  • Bruising easily
  • Unexplained bleeding from the gums or nose (low platelets)
  • Swollen lymph nodes usually in neck or groin area
  • Pain in leg, arms or knee
  • Poor appetite or loss of weight

Having one of more of these symptoms doesn’t mean that your child has leukaemia, as they can also be caused by other common conditions which are not serious. However, it’s important to have these symptoms checked by a doctor so that the cause of the illness can be found and treated early.

What is the survival rate for leukaemia?

For acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), the most common type of childhood cancer, cure rates can be upwards of 98%.3

What are the treatments for childhood leukaemia?

When a serious illness such as leukaemia is suspected based on the detailed history of symptoms described by the parent or caregiver and a physical examination performed by the doctor; blood tests and bone marrow tests will be carried out to confirm the diagnosis and the type of leukaemia your child has. It is important to start treatment as soon as the diagnosis is confirmed.  Your treatment team will discuss with you the best treatment options available. It’s important to ask and share all your concerns with the team.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy, which refers to medicines that are used to kill the cancer cells, is the mainstay of treatment for childhood acute leukaemia. Chemotherapy is given orally (pills or syrup) and through injection using a central venous catheter.

The dosage, period and type of chemotherapy drugs that a child receives will be different depending on the type of leukaemia they have.

Stem cell transplant

A stem cell transplant (or bone marrow transplant) is another treatment option for leukaemia if a child does not respond well to initial treatment, or if their cancer relapses (comes back) after going into remission. It may also be recommended for children with less common forms of acute lymphocytic leukaemia, such as those with Philadelphia chromosome or T-cell acute lymphocytic leukaemia that has not responded to other treatments.6

Learn more about how childhood cancer is treated.

Cancer care at Icon Cancer Centre Singapore

Icon Cancer Centre is proud to provide personalised paediatric oncology for children, adolescents and young adults with cancer. Through a holistic approach to care, we are dedicated to giving hope and support to patients and their families in their time of need. We offer evidence-based treatment options tailored specifically to the needs of each individual patient, ensuring that the cancer is treated accurately and effectively while minimising discomfort and side effects.

Find out more about paediatric oncology at Icon Cancer Centre Singapore.

References

For a full list of references, click here.
  1. International Agency for Research on Cancer, World Health Organization. (2020). Singapore. Retrieved on 10 January 2022 from online analysis https://gco.iarc.fr/today/online-analysis
  2. Leukemia and Lymphoma Foundation. (2017). Leukaemia. Retrieved on 4 June 2019 from https://www.llf.org.sg/disease-information/leukemia
  3. The Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program, National Childhood Cancer Registry Explorer https://seer.cancer.gov/
  4. American Cancer Society. (2021). Treating Childhood Leukaemia. Retrieved on 5 January 2022 from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/leukemia-in-children/treating.html
  5. American Cancer Society. (2021). Chemotherapy for Childhood Leukaemia. Retrieved on 5 January 2022 from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/leukemia-in-children/treating/chemotherapy.html
  6. American Cancer Society. (2021). High-dose Chemotherapy and Stem Cell Transplant for Childhood Leukemia. Retrieved on 5 January 2022 from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/leukemia-in-children/treating/bone-marrow.html

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