What is acute lymphocytic leukemia?

Acute lymphocytic leukemia, or ALL, is a type of cancer that starts in your bones. It begins in the white blood cells called lymphocytes made in the bone marrow. The word “lymphocytic” means that the cancer starts in these young white blood cells.

The cancer is called “acute” when it is the kind that can grow quickly. Because the cancer cells grow quickly, acute forms require treatment right away.

Common related conditions
Leukemia Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)

Causes of acute lymphocytic leukemia

The exact cause of ALL is still unknown. It can happen in people of all ages, but most often happens in children.

Risk factors for acute lymphocytic leukemia

Not very many risk factors are known. Some of them are:

  • Radiation — people who have been around high levels of radiation, such as having radiation therapy for cancer, are at a greater risk.
  • Chemicals — being around certain chemicals, including chemotherapy drugs and benzene, have links to an increase risk of ALL.
  • Race — Caucasians are more likely to get ALL than other races, although doctors are not sure why.
  • Gender — males are more likely than females to get ALL.

Symptoms of acute lymphocytic leukemia

Several different kinds of symptoms can occur with ALL.

They can include any of the following:

  • Unusually pale skin
  • Bleeding gums
  • Fever
  • Bruises and bleeding under the skin
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, underarms or in the groin
  • Pain in your bones or joints
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Having trouble catching your breath

ALL symptoms can also include an enlarged liver, spleen or testicles.

Diagnosis of acute lymphocytic leukemia

The most common tests for ALL are blood tests and bone marrow tests. By taking cell samples and looking at them under the microscope, doctors can see what kind of cells are in your body. If these cells include cancer, the tests tell them what kind of leukemia it is, so they can choose the best treatment plan for you.

Doctors might also use chromosome testing to look at how chromosomes are changing.

Treatments for acute lymphocytic leukemia

Doctors use several different kinds of treatment, and which ones depends upon the patient. Your specialist will help choose the type of treatment that is best for your situation.

The treatments used most often are:

  • Chemotherapy, which can be an injection into a vein or taken by mouth.
  • Stem cell transplant, which doctors use when the cancer needs high doses of chemotherapy. The high doses of chemotherapy can harm the bone marrow, so surgeons transplant stem cells to bring back the healthy marrow.
  • Targeted therapy, in which the patient takes medication to kill cancer cells as a pill every day.
  • Radiation therapy, which your doctor may suggest if the cancer has spread throughout the body.

Surgery is not usually part of the treatment, because it is not as effective as other options. But it might be necessary to put tubes into the body to use during chemotherapy.

One other treatment, using monoclonal antibodies, is sometimes an option instead of chemotherapy. In this treatment, the doctor injects antibodies into a vein, where they attack and destroy the cancer cells.

It usually takes about two years to complete treatments for ALL.

Recovery from acute lymphocytic leukemia

The recovery from ALL can take many months. Some side effects from your treatments might last for the rest of your life, so it is important to visit your doctor regularly. Follow-up visits let your doctor check on how you’re healing and see if you have any new problems.

If the ALL does not come back within five years of finishing your treatments, it probably will not return.

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