Childhood Leukemia: Are Prevention and Early Detection Possible?
Learning that your child has leukemia is devastating, and of course many parents want to know if there is anything that they could have done to prevent the cancer or detect it sooner. The simple and honest answer to both these questions is: NO. Unlike many types of adult cancers, childhood leukemia is not linked to lifestyle or environmental factors. Therefore, there is no known way to prevent the development of childhood leukemia. Likewise, unlike with many adult cancers, there are no routine screenings or testing procedures used for “early detection” of childhood cancers such as leukemia.
What Causes Childhood Leukemia?
If childhood cancer is not linked to lifestyle or environmental factors, then what cases it? Unfortunately, the answer to that very basic question is not yet known. Cancer, generally speaking, is caused when normal cells begin to grow and function abnormally. They replicate more quickly than normal and do not die when they are supposed to. Gradually, if left untreated, the cancer cells will crowd out normal cells and negatively impact the body’s ability to functional normally. In most cases of childhood leukemia, scientists do not know what triggers certain cells in the bone marrow to begin growing and functioning abnormally.
Generally speaking, scientists believe that specific changes in the DNA inside normal bone marrow cells may trigger that cell to become a leukemia cell. Those DNA changes may be inherited from a parent or they may simply be random. One type of DNA mutation connected with leukemia and other cancers can impact oncogenes and/or tumor suppressor genes. Oncogenes help cells grow and divide properly; tumor suppressor genes slow down cell replication and control cell death. If a DNA mutation turns on too many oncogenes and/or turns off tumor suppressor genes, the result may result in the development of childhood leukemia or other cancers. Another genetic mutation linked to leukemia is known as chromosome translocation, in which DNA from one chromosome breaks off and attaches itself to a different chromosome. When translocation impacts oncogenes and/or tumor suppressor genes, it can lead to the development of childhood cancer. In most cases, these mutations are random and not linked to inherited mutations.
Are there risk factors for childhood leukemia?
There are a few known risk factors for childhood leukemia.
- Inherited syndromes: children with Down syndrome (trisomy 21) and Li-Fraumeni syndrome have a significantly higher chance of developing childhood leukemia than the general population; children with Li-Fraumeni syndrome also have a higher risk of developing other forms of cancer including bone or soft tissue sarcomas and brain tumors.
- Inherited immune system problems: children with certain conditions such as Ataxia-telangiectasia, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, Bloom syndrome, and Schwachman-Diamond syndrome have an increased risk of serious infection due to the body’s inability to fight infection correctly; however, they also have an increased risk of developing childhood leukemia.
- Having a sibling with leukemia: while the overall risk is still very low, siblings of children with leukemia do have a slightly increased chance of developing leukemia themselves. The risk increases for identical twins, and greatly increases if the leukemia develops in twins under the age of one.
It is important to note, however, that while inherited conditions may result in a higher risk factor for childhood leukemia, most cases of childhood leukemia are not linked to any known or inherited risk. Moreover, childhood leukemia does not seem to be conclusively linked to any known lifestyle or environmental risk factors, with the one exception of exposure to extremely high levels of radiation (for instance, Japanese survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings had a greatly increased risk of developing AML within 6-8 years of exposure). Scientists continue to research potential links between childhood leukemia and smaller dosages of radiation, as well as chemotherapy and toxic chemicals.
About American Childhood Cancer Organization
American Childhood Cancer Organization (ACCO) is a non-profit charity dedicated to helping kids with cancer and their families navigate the difficult journey from cancer diagnosis through survivorship. Internationally, ACCO is the sole U.S. member of Childhood Cancer International (CCI), the largest patient-support organization for childhood cancer in the world. Here in the United States, ACCO promotes the critical importance of ensuring continued funding into new and better treatment protocols for childhood cancer. And most importantly, ACCO is focused on the children: developing and providing educational tools for children fighting cancer and their families, empowering them in their understanding of childhood cancer and the medical decisions they must make during this difficult journey. All of ACCO’s resources are available free of charge for families coping with childhood cancer.