A doctor talking to a child with leukemia.

Diagnosing Childhood Leukemia

Symptoms of Leukemia in Children

Leukemia is something you hear about often in advertisements and donation campaigns. However, it is different than many other cancers because it is more likely to occur in children. Let’s take a look at what symptoms of leukemia in children are.

What is Leukemia?

According to Mayo Clinic, “Leukemia is cancer of the body's blood-forming tissues, including the bone marrow and the lymphatic system.”

The bone marrow of those with leukemia produces abnormal white blood cells. These abnormal white blood cells do not work properly. Often times, treatment of leukemia can be complicated and is based on the type of leukemia found, amongst other factors. There are multiple types of leukemia. Some types of leukemia are more likely to occur in children while other types are more likely to occur in adults.

Types of Leukemia

These are the four types of leukemia that tend to be the most common:

  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)
  • Acute myeloid leukemia (AML)
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia
  • Chronic myeloid leukemia
  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). This is more common in children.

ALL is the type of leukemia children are most likely to get. This type of cancer starts developing in immature white blood cells. These cells can be either B or T lymphocytes. ALL can affect bone marrow throughout the body. It can also spread to the liver, spleen and lymph nodes.

AML is the most common form of leukemia found in adults. It is a more aggressive form of leukemia that tends to progress rapidly. Any component of the blood can be affected by AML. With AML, myeloblasts and abnormal white blood cells are created via myeloid stem cells. There are a wide variety of AML subtypes.

CLL usually affects older adults and makes up about one third of all leukemia diagnoses. One type of CLL progresses rapidly while another form of CLL progresses slowly. This type of leukemia begins in the B lymphocytes. There are more subtypes of CLL that also affect other cells.

CML is a rare type of leukemia. It accounts for about 10% of the total cases of leukemia. This is more likely to affect adults than children. With CML, the myeloid cells are turned into developing or immature cancer cells due to a genetic change. As these cells grow and spread, they overwhelm healthy cells of the blood and bone marrow.

Why Does Leukemia Occur Frequently in Children?

Leukemia is the most common type of cancer in children and teens. As we discussed earlier, the most common type of leukemia in children is ALL, however, they can also develop other types of leukemia. Unfortunately, the medical community has yet to identify exactly what causes leukemia. However, there are certain risk factors that can increase the chance of a child developing leukemia. That being said, according to WebMD, “...most children with leukemia don’t have any known risk factors.”

According to WebMD, some of the risk factors include:

  • An inherited disorder such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Down syndrome, or Klinefelter syndrome
  • An inherited immune system problem such as ataxia-telangiectasia
  • A brother or sister with leukemia, especially an identical twin
  • A history of being exposed to high levels of radiation, chemotherapy, or chemicals such as benzene (a solvent)
  • A history of immune system suppression, such as for an organ transplant

It is recommended that children who have conditions or illnesses that make leukemia more likely to develop seek regular checkups even though the risk is small.

Symptoms of Leukemia in Children

Leukemia symptoms usually prompts a doctor’s visit. Often times, the signs or symptoms of childhood leukemia occur when leukemia cells crowd healthy cells. According to WebMD, the symptoms of leukemia include:

  • Fatigue or pale skin
  • Infections and fever
  • Easy bleeding or bruising
  • Extreme fatigue or weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing

Other symptoms may include:

  • Bone or joint pain
  • Swelling in the abdomen, face, arms, underarms, sides of neck, or groin
  • Swelling above the collarbone
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss
  • Headaches, seizures, balance problems, or abnormal vision
  • Vomiting
  • Rashes
  • Gum problems

The symptoms that one may experience depend on the type of leukemia. It also depends on other factors such as blood cell counts and the number of leukemia cells present in other organs. Since leukemia is located in the developing blood cells in the bone marrow, the staging is slightly different. This is because it cannot be measured like other cancers because it does not form tumor masses for the most part. There are specific factors that affect staging and overall prognosis.

These factors include:

  • White blood cell or platelet count
  • Age
  • Prior blood disorders
  • Chromosome mutations or abnormalities
  • Bone damage
  • Enlarged liver or spleen

Childhood Leukemia

Childhood leukemia can be difficult to deal with, however like other cancers, the earlier it is detected the better the prognosis. If you or your child notice anything out of the ordinary it is important to take them to the doctors. If it is not leukemia, they will be able to rule out other potential causes.

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