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Alternative Names Return to topALL; Acute childhood leukemia; Cancer - acute childhood leukemia (ALL); Leukemia - acute childhood (ALL)
Definition Return to top
Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is a fast-growing cancer in which the body produces a large number of immature white blood cells (lymphocytes). These cells are found in the blood, bone marrow, lymph nodes, spleen, and other organs.
Causes Return to top
ALL makes up 80% of childhood acute leukemias. Most cases occur in children ages 3 - 7. The disease may also occur in adults.
In acute leukemia, cancerous cells multiply quickly and replace normal cells. Cancerous cells take over normal parts of the bone marrow, causing bone marrow failure. A person with ALL is more likely to bleed and have infections because there are fewer normal blood cells.
Most cases of ALL have no obvious cause. However, the following may play a role in the development of leukemia:
Persons with Down syndrome or who have a brother or sister with leukemia are at increased risk for ALL.
Symptoms Return to top
Exams and Tests Return to top
A physical exam may reveal the following:
Blood tests may show the following:
A bone marrow aspiration will show abnormal levels of certain cells.
ALL may also change the results of the following tests:
If you are diagnosed with ALL, genetic tests will be done to determine the specific type of ALL. Doctors can look for chromosome changes in the cells of some leukemias. Leukemias with certain types of chromosome changes have a poor outlook, while those with other types of genes can have a very good outlook. This may determine what kind of therapy is used to treat the ALL.
Treatment Return to top
The goal of treatment is to get the blood counts and the bone marrow back to normal. If this occurs, the cancer is said to be in remission.
If you have ALL, you will need chemotherapy. For the first round of chemotherapy, you may need to go to the hospital for 3 - 6 weeks. Later you may get chemotherapy on an outpatient basis. If you have a low white blood cell count, you may need to be placed in a room by yourself so you do not catch an infection.
Additional treatments depend on other symptoms. They may include:
If you go into remission, you may receive additional chemotherapy or radiation therapy to kill any cancer cells that are in the spinal fluid. You may also receive chemotherapy from time to time to prevent relapse. A bone marrow or stem cell transplant may also be recommended, especially if one of your siblings is proven to be a full match.
If your leukemia returns or does not respond to other treatments, a bone marrow or stem cell transplant is usually recommended.
Support Groups Return to top
Patients can ease the stress of their illness by joining a support group where members share common experiences and problems.
See also: Cancer - support group
Outlook (Prognosis) Return to top
Children usually have a better outcome than adults. Most adults go into complete remission. Without treatment, a person with ALL can expect to live for only about 3 months.
Possible Complications Return to top
When to Contact a Medical Professional Return to top
Call your health care provider if:
Prevention Return to top
Because the cause is usually unknown, it is not possible to prevent most cases. You may reduce your risk of ALL by avoiding exposure to toxins, radiation, and chemicals.
References Return to top
Appelbaum FR. The acute leukemias. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2007:chap 194.
National Cancer Institute. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia - adult, treatment (PDQ). Accessed February 24, 2009.
National Cancer Institute. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia - childhood, treatment (PDQ). 2008. Accessed February 24, 2009.Update Date: 3/2/2009 Updated by: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; and Yi-Bin Chen, MD, Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.