Acute lymphocytic (lymphoblastic) leukemia, also known as ALL, is the cancer that develops in the white blood cells (lymphocytes). These cells are produced in the bone marrow, which is the bone inner part where all types of blood cells are made. The word “acute” in the name means that it develops very fast and can be fatal for a person within months if it is not treated. “Lymphocytic” means that it starts in the early forms of the white blood cells – lymphocytes.
In most cases, leukemia develops quickly and invades blood very fast. While traveling through the blood vessels, cancerous lymphocytes can invade other organs in the human body. They can strike lymph nodes, liver, spleen, nervous system (spinal cord and brain) and testicles (males only).
It is very necessary to be sure that a patient has leukemia because it is not the only disease that starts in the bone marrow. Other cancer types are lymphomas. In some cases, lymph nodes and bone marrow are both invaded with the cancerous cells during the first examination. That makes it hard to recognize whether it is leukemia or lymphoma. Further diagnostic can provide more information on the disease that patient may have. For example, the size of the lymph nodes may be an indicator of the disease: the bigger they are, the more chances that a patient has lymphoma. If more than 25% of bone marrow is replaced by cancer cells, a patient is more likely to have leukemia. The main difference between ALL and lymphomas is that ALL starts in the bone marrow and spreads very fast to the other organs. Lymphomas start in lymph nodes and other organs and strike bone marrow. The cause for the disease is still unknown, but scientists believe that the mix of genetic, environmental, and biologic problems is the best explanation for it (Simon, 2009).
There is great a variety of blood cell cancers. They differ in places they start in, people whom they affect, speed of development, and how they should be treated (“What Is,” 2013).
Although ALL can occur in any age, it mostly develops in children aged 0-19. Almost 55 thousand people have this disease, but they still continue living or have a remission. In a healthy child, bone marrow produces stem cells that become mature over time. In a child with ALL, too many stem cells transform into the white blood cells. They cannot work well; thus, they cannot fight infections. In addition, there is less room for the red blood cells, platelets, and white blood cells in the bone marrow. That leads to easy bleeding, infections and anemia (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, 2012).
On the assumption that ALL is the mostly spread cancer among children, the diagnosis and treatment should be very accurate. The symptoms of the ALL include fatigue, pale skin, bruising, easy bleeding, bone and joint pains, weight loss, loss of appetite, headaches, vomiting and seizures. Many of these symptoms may be the signs of other diseases. Still, in order to act properly, doctors should be aware of them. Patient must undergo tests, so that the doctors can recognize leukemia and be sure about further steps. Blood tests help recognize the disease. The bone marrow aspiration and biopsy are usually done simultaneously under the local painkillers or even when a child sleeps. Lumbar puncture is taken under painkillers too. This test is used to find the leukemia cells in the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes brain and spine. It is very important to perform this test because the cells that contain cancer can get to the cerebrospinal fluid and grow there. In addition, the imaging tests are also able to show the disease. X-ray can show the abnormal size of the lymph nodes. If there are any problems, a child should undergo a computed tomography (CT). It works mostly as X-ray, but it takes multiple pictures as it rotates around the body and shows the detailed pictures of soft tissues.
The families that have children diseased with ALL have special needs. The best way for them is to appeal to the medical centers that specialize in treating cancer. Thus, they will have a team of doctors who can help to fight childhood cancers and know the difference between adult cancers and child ones. Families will also have additional help from social workers, nurses, psychologists, etc.
After the leukemia has been diagnosed and the type of it is clear, the doctors will discuss treatment. Usually, the treatment depends on the type of cancer, but other factors also play a significant role. The main treatment is chemotherapy, but radiation therapy and surgery may be used on some occasions as well.
The chemotherapy medications can be injected into a muscle, vein or taken in pills. It is useful, since the medicine spreads fast through the blood stream. Usually, children with ALL have long treatment (2-3 years) due to the small doses of the drugs. The possible side effects are nausea, vomiting, hair loss, fatigue etc. In radiation therapy, the high-energy beams are used to kill cancer cells. Before the treatment, the doctors will take the careful measurements of the body in order to send the beams under right angle. The procedure takes only a few minutes, but it will take longer to set up the treatment place. Surgery does not play a huge role in curing ALL, because the cancer spreads through the blood stream and strikes too many organs. Thus, it is impossible to cure leukemia this way. Nevertheless, the small operation may be performed before the chemotherapy. Surgeons cut the arm and place venous access device that is used to take the blood samples and inject the chemotherapy drugs (”What Is,” 2013).
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