Treatment for leukaemia is usually provided by a team of different types of health professionals. The treatment given depends on your age and health, the type of leukaemia, how far it has progressed, how severe your symptoms are and the wishes of the patient and the family.
Most people with acute leukaemia need treatment straight away, while people with chronic leukaemia may not need treatment for years.
Treatments for acute leukaemia
There are a lot of new, effective treatments for leukaemia. The most common treatments given for acute leukaemia are:
- chemotherapy — a combination of medicines that kill cancer cells, that can be injected into the veins, injected under the skin or taken as a pill
- targeted therapy — medicines that specifically attack cancer cells without harming normal cells, leading to fewer side effects than chemotherapy
- radiotherapy — using radiation to kill cancer cells in the head
- stem cell or bone marrow transplant — putting healthy stem cells into the body after chemotherapy
- retinoic acid — a form of vitamin A, usually given as tablets to treat a type of leukaemia called acute promyelocytic leukaemia.
- leukapheresis — passing the blood through a special machine to remove white blood cells
Treatments for chronic leukaemia
Treatments for chronic leukaemia can include those for acute leukaemia, as well as:
- monitoring the disease, and delaying treatment until it's needed
- surgery to remove the spleen, if affected
- biological therapy, such as interferon, a protein with anti-cancer effects
- targeted therapy — using medicines that affect cancer cells only
Side effects of treatment
Leukaemia treatments can cause unwanted side effects. For example, chemotherapy can cause nausea and vomiting, tiredness, hair loss, diarrhoea, constipation and a sore mouth. Interferon can cause flu-like symptoms and other effects like loss of appetite and muscle pain, while retinoic acid can cause headaches, dry skin, dry mouth and bone pain. Stem cell transplants can also cause unwanted effects, ranging from easy bruising and bleeding, to weakness and mouth infections.
Treatments can be given to reduce the impact of most of these side effects.
Palliative care aims to help control your symptoms and improve your quality of life. It does not mean that your medical team has given up on other treatments. Also known as supportive care, palliative care is sometimes given at the same time as you are receiving other treatments, such as chemotherapy, and in some cases it may be offered right from the time of diagnosis.
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Last reviewed: February 2019