Leukemia Treatment Options

Health Writer
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There are several treatment options for people with leukemia. You and your doctor should discuss which is best for you based on several factors. These include your age, how quickly the disease is progressing, how much the treatment will affect your quality of life, possible pregnancy, your previous cancer/blood cancer history, and the absence or presence of cancer in the central nervous system.


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Watch and wait

People in the early stages of slow-growing or chronic forms of leukemia may be advised to take a watch-and-wait approach. Your doctor will closely monitor the disease’s progression through exams and lab tests. You will not undergo any treatment until symptoms appear or change.


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Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the mainstay of leukemia treatment. This is normally done in cycles; for example, weekly chemotherapy treatments for three weeks, then four weeks off. Side effects depend on the type and dosage of medication, but commonly include fatigue, hair loss, poor appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and infertility.


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Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses ionizing radiation, which is the same type that is used for diagnostic x-rays, but given in higher doses. Radiation damages or destroys DNA within cells to stop them from growing or reproducing. The downside is this treatment can also damage nearby healthy cells. Radiation is sometimes used in combination with chemotherapy to treat leukemia.


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Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy uses your immune system to fight the cancer by enabling it to recognize, target, and eliminate cancer cells.  Because it trains the immune system to remember the cancer cells, it has the potential for longer-lasting results. There are several immunotherapy drugs  currently approved for treating leukemia.


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Stem cell transplantation

After high doses of chemotherapy and/or radiation to eliminate cancer from the bone marrow, you receive an infusion of stem cells, either from a donor or from your own body,  to restore the damaged bone marrow.


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Transfusions

Many people with leukemia require blood transfusions at some point during their treatment. Both the disease and treatments interfere with your body’s normal blood production and you may need to restore low counts of red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets with a transfusion from a healthy donor. Some people experience side effects from transfusions, such as fever, rash, chills, nausea, back pain, shortness of breath, or low blood pressure.


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Vaccine therapy

Cancer vaccines are different from preventive vaccines you’re familiar with, such as for measles or polio. A leukemia vaccine would treat the disease by helping to stop its growth when it’s already present in a patient, or preventing a leukemia recurrence. Vaccine therapy aims to teach your immune system to attack and destroy cancer cells. Currently, leukemia vaccines are still in development and only available through clinical trials.


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Childhood leukemia

Childhood leukemia is usually treated with chemotherapy. Children with higher-risk leukemia may receive high-dose chemotherapy combined with a stem cell transplant (which helps the patient tolerate the strong chemo).


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Clinical trials

Clinical trials are a way to be involved in new and innovative treatments for leukemia. They allow you to try treatments that are new and not yet approved but have shown potential for treating the disease. There are clinical trials for every stage of leukemia treatment as well as for people in remission. You can search for clinical trials through the National Cancer Institute, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, or CenterWatch.