Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow â the spongy tissue inside bones where blood cells are made.
The word "acute" in acute lymphocytic leukemia comes from the fact that the disease progresses rapidly and creates immature blood cells, rather than mature ones. The word "lymphocytic" in acute lymphocytic leukemia refers to the white blood cells called lymphocytes, which ALL affects. Acute lymphocytic leukemia is also known as acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Acute lymphocytic leukemia is the most common type of cancer in children, and treatments result in a good chance for a cure. Acute lymphocytic leukemia can also occur in adults, though the chance of a cure is greatly reduced.
Signs and symptoms of acute lymphocytic leukemia may include:
Make an appointment with your doctor or your child's doctor if you notice any persistent signs and symptoms that concern you.
Many signs and symptoms of acute lymphocytic leukemia mimic those of the flu. However, flu signs and symptoms eventually improve. If signs and symptoms don't improve as expected, make an appointment with your doctor.
Acute lymphocytic leukemia occurs when a bone marrow cell develops errors in its DNA. The errors tell the cell to continue growing and dividing, when a healthy cell would normally stop dividing and eventually die. When this happens, blood cell production becomes abnormal. The bone marrow produces immature cells that develop into leukemic white blood cells called lymphoblasts. These abnormal cells are unable to function properly, and they can build up and crowd out healthy cells.
It's not clear what causes the DNA mutations that can lead to acute lymphocytic leukemia. But doctors have found that most cases of acute lymphocytic leukemia aren't inherited.
Tests and procedures used to diagnose acute lymphocytic leukemia include:
Bone marrow test. During bone marrow aspiration, a needle is used to remove a sample of bone marrow from the hipbone or breastbone. The sample is sent to a lab for testing to look for leukemia cells.
Doctors in the lab will classify blood cells into specific types based on their size, shape and other genetic or molecular features. They also look for certain changes in the cancer cells and determine whether the leukemia cells began from the B lymphocytes or T lymphocytes. This information helps your doctor develop a treatment plan.
No alternative treatments have been proved to cure acute lymphocytic leukemia. But some alternative therapies may help ease the side effects of cancer treatment and make you or your child more comfortable. Discuss your options with your doctor, as some alternative treatments could interfere with cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy.
Alternative treatments that may ease symptoms include:
Although treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia is typically very successful, it can be a long road. Treatment often lasts two to three years, although the first three to six months are the most intense.
During maintenance phases, children can usually live a relatively normal life and go back to school. And adults may be able to continue working. To help you cope, try to:
Learn enough about leukemia to feel comfortable making treatment decisions. Ask your doctor to write down as much information about your specific disease as possible. Then narrow your search for information accordingly.
Write down questions you want to ask your doctor before each appointment, and look for information in your local library and on the internet. Good sources include the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Factors that may increase the risk of acute lymphocytic leukemia include: