Normally, the bone marrow makes blood stem cells (immature cells) that develop into mature blood cells over time. A blood stem cell may become a myeloid stem cell or a lymphoid stem cell. The lymphoid stem cell develops into a white blood cell. The myeloid stem cell develops into one of three types of mature blood cells:
White blood cells that fight infection and disease.
Cancers that are acute usually get worse quickly if they are not treated. Cancers that are chronic usually get worse slowly. Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is also called acute myelogenous leukemia, acute myeloblastic leukemia, acute granulocytic leukemia, or acute nonlymphocytic leukemia.
In AML, the myeloid stem cells usually develop into a type of immature white blood cell called myeloblasts (or myeloid blasts). The myeloblasts, or leukemia cells, in AML are abnormal and do not become healthy white blood cells. The leukemia cells can build up in the blood and bone marrow so there is less room for healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. When this happens, infection, anemia, or easy bleeding may occur. The leukemia cells can spread outside the blood to other parts of the body, including the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), skin, and gums. Sometimes leukemia cells form a solid tumor called a granulocytic sarcoma or chloroma.
There are subtypes of AML based on the type of blood cell that is affected. The treatment of AML is different when it is a subtype called acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) or when the child has Down syndrome.
In chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), too many bone marrow stem cells develop into a type of white blood cell called granulocytes. Some of these bone marrow stem cells never become mature white blood cells. These are called blasts. Over time, the granulocytes and blasts crowd out the red blood cells and platelets in the bone marrow. CML is rare in children.
Juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia (JMML) is a rare childhood cancer that occurs more often in children around the age of 2 years. In JMML, too many bone marrow stem cells develop into 2 types of white blood cells called myelocytes and monocytes. Some of these bone marrow stem cells never become mature white blood cells. These immature cells, called blasts, are unable to do their usual work. Over time, the myelocytes, monocytes, and blasts crowd out the red blood cells and platelets in the bone marrow. When this happens, infection, anemia, or easy bleeding may occur.
Transient myeloproliferative disorder (TMD) is a disorder of the bone marrow that can develop in newborns who have Down syndrome. This disorder usually goes away on its own within the first 3 weeks of life. Infants who have Down syndrome and TMD have an increased chance of developing AML before the age of 3 years.
In myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), the bone marrow makes too few red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. These blood cells may not mature and enter the blood. The treatment for MDS depends on how much lower than normal the number of red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets is. MDS may progress to AML.
This summary is about childhood AML, childhood CML, JMML, TMD, and MDS. See the following PDQ summaries for more information about other types of leukemia and diseases of the blood and bone marrow:
Hairy Cell Leukemia Treatment
Myelodysplastic Syndromes Treatment
Myelodysplastic/Myeloproliferative Neoplasms Treatment
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor. Possible risk factors for childhood AML, childhood CML, JMML, TMD, and MDS include the following:
Having a brother or sister, especially a twin, with leukemia.
Being exposed to cigarette smoke or alcohol before birth.
These and other symptoms may be caused by childhood AML, childhood CML, JMML, or MDS. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:
Fever with or without an infection.
Shortness of breath.
Weakness or feeling tired.
Easy bruising or bleeding.
Petechiae (flat, pinpoint spots under the skin caused by bleeding).
Pain in the bones or joints.
Pain or feeling of fullness below the ribs.
Painless lumps that are sometimes around the eyes. These lumps, called chloromas, are sometimes seen in childhood AML and may be blue-green.
An eczema-like skin rash.
The symptoms of TMD may include the following:
Swelling all over the body.
Shortness of breath.
Weakness or feeling tired.
Pain below the ribs.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
Complete blood count (CBC): A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the following:
The number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
The portion of the sample made up of red blood cells.
Blood chemistry studies: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs and tissues in the body. An unusual (higher or lower than normal) amount of a substance can be a sign of disease in the organ or tissue that makes it.
Peripheral blood smear: A procedure in which a sample of blood is checked for blast cells, number and kinds of white blood cells, number of platelets, and changes in the shape of the blood cells.
Immunophenotyping: A process used to identify cells, based on the types of antigens or markers on the surface of the cell, that may include special staining of the blood and bone marrow cells. This process is used to diagnose the subtype of AML by comparing the cancer cells to normal cells of the immune system.
The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options for childhood AML depend on the following:
The age of the child at diagnosis.
Number of white blood cells in the blood at diagnosis.
Whether the AML was caused by previous anticancer treatment.
The subtype of AML.
Whether there are certain chromosomal changes in the leukemia cells.
Whether the child has Down syndrome. Most children with AML and Down syndrome can be cured of their leukemia.
Whether the child has leukemia in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).
How quickly the leukemia responds to initial treatment.
Whether the AML is newly diagnosed or has recurred (come back) after being treated.
The length of time since treatment ended, for AML that has recurred.
The prognosis and treatment options for childhood CML depend on how long it has been since the patient was diagnosed and how many blast cells are in the blood.
The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options for JMML depend on the following:
The age of the child at diagnosis.
How many red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets are in the blood.
Whether the JMML is untreated or has recurred after treatment.
The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options for MDS depend on the following:
Whether the MDS was caused by previous cancer treatment.
How low the numbers of red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets are.
Whether the MDS is untreated or has recurred after treatment.
The extent or spread of cancer is usually described as stages. In childhood acute myeloid leukemia (AML), the subtype of AML and whether the leukemia has spread outside the blood and bone marrow are used, instead of the stage, to plan treatment. The following tests and procedures may be used to determine if the leukemia has spread:
Lumbar puncture: A procedure used to collect cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from the spinal column. This is done by placing a needle into the spinal column. This procedure is also called an LP or spinal tap.
Biopsy of the testicles, ovaries, or skin: The removal of cells or tissues from the testicles, ovaries, or skin so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer. This is done only if something unusual about the testicles, ovaries, or skin is found during the physical exam.
Through the blood. Cancer cells travel through the blood, invade solid tissues in the body, such as the brain or heart, and form a solid tumor.
Through solid tissue. Cancer cells that have formed a solid tumor spread to tissues in the surrounding area.
The new (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary cancer. For example, if leukemia cells spread to the brain, the cancer cells in the brain are actually leukemia cells. The disease is metastatic leukemia, not brain cancer.
Newly diagnosed childhood AML
Less than 20% of the cells in the bone marrow are blasts and there is a specific change in the chromosome.
Childhood AML in remission
The complete blood count is almost normal.
Different types of treatment are available for children with AML, CML, JMML, TMD, or MDS. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment.
Because cancer in children is rare, taking part in a clinical trial should be considered. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Treatment will be overseen by a pediatric oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating children with cancer. The pediatric oncologist works with other health care providers who are experts in treating children with leukemia and who specialize in certain areas of medicine. These may include the following specialists:
Regular follow-up exams are very important. Some cancer treatments cause side effects that continue or appear months or years after cancer treatment has ended. These are called late effects. Late effects of cancer treatment may include:
Changes in mood, feelings, thinking, learning, or memory.
Second cancers (new types of cancer).
Some late effects may be treated or controlled. It is important that parents of children who are treated for AML or other blood diseases talk with their doctors about the effects cancer treatment can have on their child. (See the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer for more information).
The treatment of childhood AML is done in phases:
Consolidation/intensification therapy: This is the second phase of treatment. It begins once the leukemia is in remission. The purpose of postremission therapy is to kill any remaining leukemia cells that may not be active but could begin to regrow and cause a relapse.
Treatment called central nervous system (CNS) sanctuary therapy may be given during the induction phase of therapy. Because chemotherapy that is given by mouth or injected into a vein may not reach leukemia cells in the CNS (brain and spinal cord), the cells are able to find "sanctuary" (hide) in the CNS. Intrathecal chemotherapy and radiation therapy are able to reach and kill leukemia cells in the CNS and prevent the cancer from recurring (coming back). CNS sanctuary therapy is also called CNS prophylaxis.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid (intrathecal chemotherapy), an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). Combination chemotherapy is treatment using more than one anticancer drug.
The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type of cancer being treated.
In AML, the leukemia cells may spread to the brain and/or spinal cord. Anticancer drugs given by mouth or vein to treat AML cannot cross the blood-brain barrier and enter the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Instead, an anticancer drug is injected into the fluid-filled space to kill leukemia cells that may have spread there. This is called intrathecal chemotherapy.
See Drugs Approved for Acute Myeloid Leukemia for more information.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. External radiation therapy may be used to treat childhood AML that has spread, or may spread, to the brain and spinal cord. When used this way, it is called central nervous system (CNS) sanctuary therapy or CNS prophylaxis.
Stem cell transplant is a way of giving chemotherapy and replacing blood-forming cells that are abnormal or destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient or a donor and are frozen and stored. After the chemotherapy is completed, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body's blood cells.
Targeted therapy is a treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells. Tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI) therapy is a type of targeted therapy that blocks signals needed for tumors to grow. TKIs blocks the enzyme, tyrosine kinase, that causes stem cells to develop into more white blood cells (granulocytes or blasts) than the body needs. Imatinib (Gleevec) is one of the TKIs used to treat childhood CML.
TKIs may be used in combination with other anticancer drugs as adjuvant therapy (treatment given after the initial treatment, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back).
See Drugs Approved for Myeloproliferative Disorders for more information.
Arsenic trioxide and all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) are anticancer drugs that kill leukemia cells, stop the leukemia cells from dividing, or help the leukemia cells mature into white blood cells. These drugs are used in the treatment of a subtype of AML called acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL).
See Drugs Approved for Acute Myeloid Leukemia for more information.
Supportive care is given to lessen the problems caused by the disease or its treatment. Supportive care may include the following:
Transfusion therapy: A way of giving red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets to replace blood cells destroyed by disease or cancer treatment. The blood may be donated from another person or it may have been taken from the person earlier and stored until needed.
Drug therapy, such as antibiotics.
Leukapheresis: A procedure in which a special machine is used to remove white blood cells from the blood. Blood is taken from the patient and put through a blood cell separator where the white blood cells are removed. The rest of the blood is then returned to the patient's bloodstream.
This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells. Monoclonal antibodies, proteasome inhibitors, and natural killer (NK) cells are three types of targeted therapies being studied in the treatment of childhood AML.
Monoclonal antibody therapy uses antibodies made in the laboratory, from a single type of immune system cell. These antibodies can identify substances on cancer cells or normal substances that may help cancer cells grow. The antibodies attach to the substances and kill the cancer cells, block their growth, or keep them from spreading. Monoclonal antibodies are given by infusion. They may be used alone or to carry drugs, toxins, or radioactive material directly to cancer cells. Monoclonal antibodies may be used in combination with chemotherapy as adjuvant therapy.
Natural killer (NK) cells are white blood cells that can kill tumor cells. These may be taken from a donor and given to the patient by infusion to help kill leukemia cells.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests. This is sometimes called re-staging.
Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
A link to a list of current clinical trials is included for each treatment section. For some types or stages of cancer, there may not be any trials listed. Check with your doctor for clinical trials that are not listed here but may be right for you.
Treatment of newly diagnosed childhood acute leukemia with a granulocytic sarcoma (chloroma) may include chemotherapy with or without radiation therapy.
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with untreated childhood acute myeloid leukemia and other myeloid malignancies. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with childhood acute myeloid leukemia in remission. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Combination chemotherapy and stem cell transplant.
A clinical trial of stem cell transplant using different sources of stem cells.
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with recurrent childhood acute myeloid leukemia. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Treatment of acute promyelocytic leukemia may include the following:
A clinical trial of chemotherapy and ATRA with or without arsenic trioxide.
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with childhood acute promyelocytic leukemia (M3). For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Arsenic trioxide therapy.
Treatment for childhood chronic myelogenous leukemia may include the following:
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with childhood chronic myelogenous leukemia. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Transient myeloproliferative disorder (TMD) usually goes away on its own. For TMD that does not go away on its own, treatment may include the following:
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with acute myeloid leukemia/transient myeloproliferative disorder. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Treatment of myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) may include the following:
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with childhood myelodysplastic syndromes. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about childhood acute myeloid leukemia and other myeloid malignancies, see the following:
What You Need to Know About™ Leukemia
Drugs Approved for Acute Myeloid Leukemia
Drugs Approved for Myeloproliferative Disorders
Understanding Cancer Series: Blood Stem Cell Transplants
Bone Marrow Transplantation and Peripheral Blood Stem Cell Transplantation
Targeted Cancer Therapies
Understanding Cancer Series: Targeted Therapies
For more childhood cancer information and other general cancer resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:
What You Need to Know About™ Cancer
CureSearch for Children's Cancer
Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer
Adolescents and Young Adults with Cancer
Young People with Cancer: A Handbook for Parents
Care for Children and Adolescents with Cancer
Understanding Cancer Series: Cancer
Coping with Cancer: Supportive and Palliative Care
Information for Survivors/Caregivers/Advocates
For more information, U.S. residents may call the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Eastern Time. A trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.
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PDQ is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. Most of the information contained in PDQ is available online at NCI's Web site. PDQ is provided as a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health, the federal government's focal point for biomedical research.
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The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries are available in two versions. The health professional versions provide detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions provide current and accurate cancer information.
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PDQ also contains information on clinical trials.
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." In the United States, about two-thirds of children with cancer are treated in a clinical trial at some point in their illness.
Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ and are available online at NCI's Web site. Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. For additional help in locating a childhood cancer clinical trial, call the Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
The PDQ database contains listings of groups specializing in clinical trials.
The Children's Oncology Group (COG) is the major group that organizes clinical trials for childhood cancers in the United States. Information about contacting COG is available on the NCI Web site or from the Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).