About Childhood Leukemia Cancer
Leukemia is the most common form of childhood cancer today, accounting for nearly one-third of all childhood cancer diagnoses in the United States. A blood-based cancer that begins in the soft inner part of the bone called the bone marrow, childhood leukemia is classified into three different types. The most common type is Acute lymphocytic (lymphoblastic) leukemia (ALL), about 75% of all childhood leukemia diagnoses. ALL starts with abnormal cell growth among immature lymphocytes (white blood cells that help the body fight infection). About 25% of diagnoses are Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), which begins with abnormal growth of myeloid cells (responsible for the growth of non-lymphocytic white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.) The third type of childhood leukemia—Juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia (JMML)—is extremely rare. Like AML, it develops in the myeloid cells and is acute (quickly growing) but it does not develop and spread as quickly as either AML or ALL.
What are the Symptoms of Childhood Leukemia?
The signs and symptoms of childhood leukemia generally do not begin to manifest until the abnormal cancer cells have spread from inside the bone marrow into the blood stream. Once inside the blood stream, the leukemia cells begin to crowd out healthy blood cells, while simultaneously traveling throughout the body and impacting the health and normal functioning of other organs. Therefore, the specific signs and symptoms of leukemia depend on the type of blood cell has been most impacted by the growth of the abnormal cells, and the impact of the cancer on other organs throughout the body.
If leukemia has caused a shortage of healthy red blood cells, symptoms may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Unusually pale skin
- An unusual sensation of cold
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
If leukemia has caused a shortage of healthy white blood cells:
White blood cells are the body’s primary defense against illnesses caused by both bacteria and viruses. Therefore, if your child has a shortage of healthy white blood cells, or if the presence of leukemia cells is preventing the white blood cells from functioning properly, your child may not be able to fight off infections and illnesses. Recurring infections or infections that won’t go away even with medical intervention may indicate the presence of leukemia. The main indicator of infection is usually fever.
If leukemia has caused a shortage of platelets, signs and symptoms can include:
- Easy and frequent bruising
- Easy and frequent bleeding
- Frequent and/or severe nosebleeds
- Bleeding gums
If the leukemia has spread from the blood stream into or near other organs, it can cause symptoms relating to the functioning of those organs, such as:
- Joint and/or bone pain
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Swelling in the abdomen
- Weight loss and/or loss of appetite
- Coughing or trouble breathing
- Headaches, seizures, vomiting, loss of balance, and blurred vision
- Swelling of the face and arms, called SVC syndrome, is a potentially very serious symptom caused by the accumulation of cancer cells in the thymus
- Symptoms specific to AML include skin rashes, gum problems (swelling, pain, and bleeding), extreme weakness, extreme tiredness, and slurring of speech
With the exception of the serious symptoms such as SVC syndrome and the extreme fatigue and weakness seen (albeit rarely) in patients with AML, you may notice that the symptoms of childhood leukemia listed here are also symptoms of many routine childhood illnesses. The fact is that childhood leukemia is a very rare disease. Just because you notice the presence of one or more of these symptoms does not mean that your child has leukemia. However, if you have any concerns—and especially if you feel the symptoms are not going away or are getting worse—it is important to share your concerns with your child’s pediatrician. In some cases, he or she may suggest additional diagnostic testing if he or she believes that the symptoms may be related to childhood leukemia.
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.