Treatment For Leukemia

If you have a diagnosis of blood cancer, your physician and health care team will design a treatment plan specifically for you. That plan will be based on the specific type of your disease along with your age and general health.

There are many treatment options available including:

  • Watchful waiting
  • Chemotherapy
  • Interferon Therapy
  • Radiation Therapy
  • Stem Cell Transplant
  • Surgery

Sometimes a combination of these treatments will be used.

If you have acute leukemia treatment is needed right away. The goal of treatment is to destroy any signs of leukemia and for your symptoms to go away, this is called remission. When you go into remission you may receive more treatment to prevent a relapse of the disease. This treatment is called consolidation therapy or maintenance therapy. Many people with acute leukemia can be cured.

When treatment for chronic leukemia is needed, it can often control the disease and its symptoms. People may receive maintenance therapy to help keep the cancer in remission, but chronic leukemia can seldom be cured with chemotherapy. However, stem cell transplants offer some people with chronic leukemia the chance for cure.

Your doctor will discuss your treatment options, the expected results, and the possible side effects. You and your doctor can work together to develop a treatment plan that meets your medical and personal needs. You may want to talk with your doctor about taking part in a clinical trial, a research study of new treatment methods.

Before you begin treatment, ask your health care team to explain possible side effects and how treatment may change your normal activities. Because cancer treatments often damage healthy cells and tissues, side effects are common. Side effects may not be the same for each person, and they may change from one treatment session to the next. If you experience any side effects discuss them with your health care team. They will help you find the best ways to manage those side effects.

Types of Treatment

Watchful Waiting
If you have chronic leukemia and do not have any symptoms, you may not need treatment right away. Your physician will watch your health closely and start treatment when you begin to have symptoms. Not getting treatment right away is called watchful waiting.

Chemotherapy uses powerful drugs or chemicals to kill cancer cells. These drugs may be taken by mouth, or injected into a vein, tissue, or directly into a tumor site. It may be given while you are staying in the hospital or in an outpatient clinic.

Chemotherapy is often the treatment of choice for blood cancers, these "anti- cancer" drugs all interfere with the growth and multiplication of cancer cells. In many cases, combinations of these drugs are administered for the best success.

After a "round" of chemotherapy is administered, you may have a recovery period to allow your body to rest. Then, another round of medication is administered. Depending on the type of cancer and how it responds to the chemotherapy, the total course of this type of treatment could be months.

The goals of chemotherapy may be:

  • To cure cancer
  • To prevent cancer from spreading
  • To slow the growth of cancer
  • To kill cancer cells that may have travelled to other parts of the body
  • To relieve symptoms

As with any type of drug therapy, each patient will experience different side effects from their chemotherapy.

Interferon Therapy
Interferons are a class of proteins that are released by virus-infected cells, they help normal cells make antiviral proteins. They also help the body to reduce leukemia cell growth and reproduction while strengthening the body’s immune response.

Interferon is given by injection into a vein, into a muscle, or under the skin. Under the skin or subcutaneous injection is the most common route of administration. Interferon is usually offered to all newly diagnosed patients who are not candidates for stem cell transplantation.

Interferon has possible side effects including: fevers, chills, muscle aches, bone pain, headaches, concentration difficulties, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and general flu-like symptoms when starting the drug. Symptoms usually last for one to two weeks, but may be lessened by drugs such as acetaminophen.

Radiation Therapy
Radiation may be used in the treatment of blood cancers to destroy cells and prevent the disease from progressing. It is usually used in combination with another treatment type. In the case of leukemia and lymphoma treatment, external beam radiation is the therapy used.

Side effects will be different for each person, and mostly depend on the area of the body being treated, and the length of treatment.

Stem Cell or Marrow Transplantation

Success in treating leukemia and lymphoma increases the more chemotherapy that is given. However, once the bone marrow has been exposed to very high doses of chemotherapy or radiation, its ability to make platelets, white cells and red cells is severely damaged. When a leukemia patient receives a stem cell transplant, the stem cells are used in an attempt to jump start the bone marrow to resume normal cell production. Stem cells were originally obtained only from healthy bone marrow and the process was referred to as a "bone marrow transplant." Today, stem cells can also be obtained from peripheral and umbilical cord blood and "stem cell transplant" is now the preferred term.

Chemotherapy and radiation are used in leukemia patients to destroy abnormal white blood cells produced by bone marrow. Unfortunately, these treatments can also destroy the marrow's ability to produce healthy red and white cells and platelets necessary to sustain life. In particularly aggressive cases of leukemia, chemotherapy and radiation may fail to kill the abnormal cells. If this occurs, the only treatment option left is a stem cell transplant. If the transplant is to be effective, the existing malfunctioning marrow must be destroyed with a high dose of chemotherapy.

There are two main types of stem cell transplants: autologous and allogeneic. Autologous transplants use previously stored stem cells from the patient's own body. When the patient is in "remission" or showing no signs of disease, the cells are collected from the patient's blood or marrow. The cells may then be treated with chemotherapy to kill any leukemia or lymphoma cells that might still be present. After the patient has completed their therapy, the cells will then be given back to them to help their body resume blood production.
Allogeneic transplants follow the same principles, but they use stem cells or marrow from a donor. The donor may be a brother or sister with the same tissue type as the patient, or a matched volunteer donor from the National Marrow Donor Program.

Surgery & Leukemia Treatment

Surgery does not play a major role in the management of leukemia, the removal of the spleen may be the only surgical procedure performed during leukemia treatment. The reason for this is that leukemia cells usually are widespread throughout the body and cannot be surgically removed like other forms of cancer.

After diagnosis and treatment, many people with leukemia live many good, quality years. You may find that knowing more about the disease and its treatment can help you cope. Whenever possible, people should be treated at a medical center that has physicians and health care professionals experienced in treating leukemia.

At the Foshay Cancer Center you will find an experienced team of physicians and healthcare professionals, state-of-the-art technology and comprehensive support services.

For more information about treatment at the Foshay Cancer Center, call (561) 263-4400.