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Treatments for leukaemia in children can cause a range of short-term side effects, such as loss of hair.

Treatments for leukaemia in children can cause a range of short-term side effects, such as loss of hair.
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Leukaemia in children

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Leukaemia is the most common cancer in children. In most cases, children are diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), which can often be treated successfully.

Children with leukaemia usually need treatment for 2 to 3 years, as well as ongoing regular check-ups to monitor and treat any late effects.

Types of childhood leukaemia

There are several types of leukaemia seen in children, including:

  • acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), also called acute lymphocytic leukaemia
  • acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), also called acute myeloblastic leukaemia
  • chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML), which is very rare in children but more common in teenagers
  • chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, the most common type of leukaemia in adults but rare in children

Types of leukaemia differ in the type of cell they originated from, as well as in the way they are treated and their chance of successful treatment.

Treatment for childhood leukaemia

The main treatment given to children with leukaemia is chemotherapy (a combination of medicines), usually as tablets or injections. Radiotherapy may also be used to kill cancer cells in the brain, and in some cases, a stem cell or bone marrow transplant may also be necessary. Other treatments include antibiotics to prevent infections, biotherapy to use the body's own immune system to fight cancer cells, targeted therapy, medicine that targets cancer cells but with fewer side effects than chemotherapy, and blood products to restore the normal contents of the blood.

Treatments for leukaemia in children, as with adults, can cause a range of short-term side effects, such as nausea and loss of hair. Longer term effects, called 'late effects', can also develop any time after treatment, so ongoing check-ups are needed.

Living with childhood leukaemia

Children with leukaemia can need treatment for up to 3 years. During this time, it's important they have the opportunity to live as normal a life as possible. Whenever feeling well enough, they should be encouraged to do their usual activities, like having playtime, and going to school or day care.

Caring for a child with leukaemia can be very challenging and stressful. Many support services exist to help families, including Cancer Councils in each state and territory (Phone 13 11 20), and the Leukaemia Foundation.

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Last reviewed: February 2019

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