Pediatric Leukemia

Thousands of children are diagnosed with leukemia each year, and the vast majority of them achieve remission. Children’s Health can guide you through leukemia treatment and give your child the best opportunity for a long, healthy life.

We are home to one of the nation’s largest childhood leukemia programs. We offer the latest treatments and UT Southwestern physicians have helped hundreds of children with leukemia get back to normal, active childhoods.

What is Pediatric Leukemia?

Leukemia is the most common childhood cancer. It’s a blood cancer that starts in the bone marrow, which is a spongy substance that creates blood cells. When a child has leukemia, cancerous white blood cells overwhelm healthy cells.

What are the types of Pediatric Leukemia?

We use the latest diagnostic tools to determine which type of leukemia your child has. This way, we can tailor the right treatment to their condition. Types of childhood leukemia include:

Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)

ALL accounts for up to 75% of childhood leukemias, making it the most common type. It develops in immature white blood cells (lymphocytes). We treat all types of ALL, including rare forms such as Burkitt’s leukemia, infantile leukemia and precursor T-cell and B-cell ALL.

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML)

AML starts in myeloid cells in the bone marrow and quickly moves into the bloodstream. Myeloid cells are immature blood cells that later develop into oxygen-carrying red blood cells, infection-fighting white blood cells and blood-clotting platelets. AML can spread to the lymph nodes, liver, spleen, testicles, brain and spinal cord.

Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML)

CML is the most common leukemia in adults. It’s rare – but not impossible – for a child to get CML. This cancer develops in white blood cells that have partially matured.

Juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia (JMML)

This uncommon leukemia affects children between 3 months and 6 years old. It can spread to the liver, spleen and lymph nodes.

Blastic plasmacytoid dendritic cell neoplasm (BPDCN)

BPDCN is a very rare childhood blood cancer. It affects the skin, lymph nodes and spleen.

What are the early signs of Pediatric Leukemia?

As leukemia cells multiply and crowd out healthy cells, your child might experience some of these symptoms:

  • Abdominal swelling
  • Bone or joint pain
  • Coughing or shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling cold
  • Increased number of fevers or infections
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Pale skin
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Easy bruising and bleeding, including frequent nosebleeds

How is Pediatric Leukemia diagnosed?

Your child may undergo one or more of these tests to diagnose leukemia or rule it out:

  • Complete blood count (CBC): A test to measure blood cell and platelet numbers in the blood.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A scan that creates 3D images of the body’s soft tissues.
  • Ultrasound (sonogram): A scan that produces 3D images of blood vessels, bone, soft tissue and certain body areas like the abdomen or head.
  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy: A test to check for cancer cells in bone marrow, and sometimes in the bone itself.
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap): A test to check for cancer cells in spinal fluid.
  • Lymph node biopsy: A test to check for cancer cells in lymph nodes.

What causes Pediatric Leukemia?

Childhood leukemia and other pediatric cancers happen when something damages the genetic makeup, or DNA, of cells. But medical experts don’t know what starts that process. Once these cells mutate or change, they grow out of control and interfere with the body’s production of healthy cells.

How is Pediatric Leukemia treated?

As one of the country’s largest pediatric leukemia programs, we offer all treatments for children with leukemia. Treatment options include:

  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy medications (chemo) are the go-to treatment for childhood leukemia. These drugs attack and destroy cancer cells while easing bone pain caused by the cancer.
  • CAR T-cell therapy: A new and innovative treatment that trains healthy cells in your child’s immune system to find and destroy ALL cancer cells. CAR T-cell therapy may be an option for your child if traditional treatments (like chemotherapy) don’t put their leukemia in remission or if the cancer returns. 
  • Stem cell (bone marrow) transplant: Our accredited Pediatric Stem Cell Transplant Program is the only one in North Texas offering stem cell transplants to treat childhood leukemia. These transplants can replace defective bone marrow and stop the body from producing cancerous cells.
  • Immunotherapy: This treatment engages your child’s immune system to fight cancer cells. Children's Health℠ offers access to clinical trials of innovative CAR T-cell therapies for leukemia.
  • Proton radiation therapy: We offer targeted proton radiation therapy to minimize your child’s exposure to harmful rays.
  • Targeted drugs: Drugs such as tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKI) attack mutations in genes that cause leukemia.

Pediatric Leukemia research

Cancer specialists practicing at Children’s Health are also faculty members at UT Southwestern Medical Center and are nationally recognized for their dedication to advancing pediatric leukemia research. Our academic affiliation with UT Southwestern Medical Center allows us to participate in clinical trials to find new treatments and minimize side effects. This means your family has access to promising new therapies often before they’re widely available.

In addition to conducting our own hematology and oncology research, we’re also among a select group of medical centers participating in the:

Pediatric Leukemia Doctors and Providers

At Children’s Health, your child receives the best care from a team that has deep expertise in childhood leukemia.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the survival rate for childhood leukemia?

    We consider children with acute leukemias, such as ALL and AML, to be cured if the cancer doesn’t return five years after initial diagnosis. Five-year survival rates for childhood leukemia include:

    • ALL: Up to 90%
    • AML: Up to 70%
    • CML: Up to 80%
    • JMML: Up to 50%
  • What is the most common age for childhood leukemia?

    Leukemia can show up at different times during a child’s life, depending on the type of leukemia:

    • ALL most commonly affects children between the ages of 2 and 5.
    • AML typically occurs before age 2 or during the teen years.
    • CML usually occurs in teenagers.
    • JMML is uncommon. When it does strike children, it often appears around age 2.
  • Can a child have leukemia for years without knowing?

    This is unlikely. Most childhood leukemias are acute – the disease and symptoms come on quickly. When cancer cells start to build up in blood and crowd out healthy cells, your child will show the effects. You might notice that your child is unusually tired, losing weight or has joint pain. While your child might have leukemia for a few months before you find out what’s wrong, it’s highly improbable for leukemia to go undetected for years.