Teens generally get one of two types of leukemia:

  • Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia
  • Acute Myeloid or Myelogenous Leukemia

OK, so what is leukemia?

Leukemia is a form of cancer that starts in the bone marrow where all your blood is made. The bone marrow is a spongy material inside your bones where blood cells are produced and mature. Different types of blood cells are made in healthy bone marrow: Red blood cells carry oxygen and nutrients to all cells in your body. Platelets are cells that help your blood to clot and stop bleeding. White cells help fight infection. The white cells are responsible for recognizing foreign substances like bacteria and viruses. White blood cells can communicate with each other to help fight infection. Some types of white blood cells make antibodies to destroy these foreign substances, and other white cells ingest the foreign substance.

(A little like Pac-Man!)

You have different types of white blood cells: lymphoid and myeloid. The type of white blood cell that goes crazy determines the type of leukemia you have.

Those Darn Blast Cells…

Although the exact cause is unknown, something happens that makes very young cells multiply but never grow or mature to become useful or functional. These abnormal cells are called leukemia blasts or just blasts and are one indicator of leukemia. What’s so bad about blasts in your bone marrow and blood? These abnormal cells are taking up space and pushing out the normal, healthy cells in your bone marrow. The blasts take up all the room in your bone marrow and you cannot make normal, healthy blood cells. This puts you at risk for infections (low white blood count), anemia (low red blood count) and bleeding (low platelet count).

Not Another Bone Marrow Biopsy…

A bone marrow sample is essential for an accurate diagnosis. The biggest sources of bone marrow in your body are your hips, the long bones of your legs, your breastbone and all the vertebrae of your spine. This explains why your bone marrow test may have been done in your hipbone. This is a big bone that contains lots of bone marrow and is a relatively safe place to do the test. It will be extremely important to keep checking your bone marrow after your treatment is underway. You need to be sure that your treatment is clearing the leukemia cells from your bone marrow.

Speaking of Treatment…

The primary treatment for leukemia includes chemotherapy and maybe radiation, in some cases. Bone marrow transplantation is also sometimes used. Your specific diagnosis will determine what happens next. Your treatment will be planned by a team of cancer specialists with experience and expertise in treating leukemia. Working together with you and your parents, they will recommend the best plan of action.

Checking Counts…

Most of the time your blood counts will be checked to determine the status of your bone marrow. This will help your medical team know how your chemotherapy is working. Your counts will also give clues about what you might need to supplement your own body’s supply of blood. For example, if you are having headaches or feeling dizzy because your bone marrow can’t make enough red blood cells, you will probably need a transfusion to help decrease your anemia. Transfusions of platelets can also be done if you are having problems with bleeding.

“But It’s Only a Little Fever”…

You may have been warned about high fevers.

Why are fevers such a big deal?

Good question.  Fevers are one sign of infection. If you have good counts and plenty of healthy white blood cells to fight infections, then a fever is not a huge problem. But if your white blood count is low, this is a big deal. Serious infections can settle in your blood stream or other parts of your body (sepsis). If you don’t have a good supply of white blood cells and you have a fever over 38 C or 100.5 F, you will automatically be treated with antibiotics to help you fight off bacteria that can cause very serious, potentially life-threatening infections.

I’m In Remission – Why More Chemo?…

Many kids want to know why they have to keep getting chemotherapy even though they are in remission. This is another good question. Remission is very important to achieve. It means that when the bone marrow is evaluated under the microscope, 95% of all the cells must be normal and there must be a good mixture of white blood cells, red cells and platelets. No blasts allowed! Your treatment will continue even though you are in remission to make sure that every last blast is destroyed by the chemotherapy.

Hang In There…

Getting rid of leukemia is demanding and difficult work, filled with some difficult turns. You need to be just as tough and determined to keep the leukemia out of your bone marrow as those blasts are determined to stay in your body. Get help from your doctors and nurses so they can answer your questions and help you adapt to life with this disease. Count on your parents, family and friends for support. Try to meet other kids who are having treatment or who have already been through chemo. They can give you advice and encouragement. CONNECT HERE.