image001The type of cancer found most commonly in young children is childhood leukemia. While it is very tough on children who suffer from the disease, there is a successful treatment available for the disease and it isn’t fatal in most cases. Around 2000 to 3000 children, mostly aged 3 to 5, in the country are diagnosed with childhood leukemia every year.

Childhood leukemia affects the formation of white blood cells in the bone marrow and these abnormal cells move throughout the bloodstream surrounding the healthy cells. As a result, the body’s ability to fight viruses decreases which enhances the chances of the child contracting multiple infections and other diseases.

Signs of Leukemia in Children

It is difficult to diagnose leukemia because its symptoms usually show up slowly (except in acute leukemia whose symptoms appear suddenly) and because when they appear, they are mistaken with those of other normal childhood diseases. The signs of leukemia in children differ from child to child with the root cause of the disease indeterminable most of the times.

Leukemia cells cluster around the healthy cells that produce platelets, white blood cells and red blood cells resulting in their shortage in the body. Moreover, the leukemia cells spread in other regions of the body too affecting their health as well. Most of these symptoms are caused because of these two reasons. However, the same symptoms can be caused by other diseases as well. Thus, it is important to inform the doctor of these signs as soon as possible so that the root cause of these symptoms can be identified and treated.




The child would start to tire quickly because of anemia which is caused by shortage of red blood cells. The shortage might also lead to weakness and light headedness and pale skin.

Fever and infection

The child would suffer from fevers that might not be cured with regular medicines. This can be caused by the abnormal leukemia cells either because of their chemical secretion in the body or because of the lack of action on their part to fight an infection. With only a few healthy white blood cells for protection, the infections would cause more stubborn fevers.

Excessive bruises and bleeding

Because leukemia reduces the blood platelets in the body, the child might have a large amount of small red spots or bruises all over the skin caused by bleeding of damaged blood vessels. The child might have nosebleeds and gum bleeds frequently too as the platelets which stop the bleeding quickly would be lacking in numbers.

Pain in bones and joints

Leukemia cells usually cluster around inside a joint and around the surface of bones. So, a child with leukemia may commonly complain about joint pain in bones and joints.

Abdomen or belly swelling

Child with leukemia may also get an enlarged or swelled abdomen or belly. It’s actually the liver and spleen where the swelling takes place, with the doctor easily identifying their enlargement below the lower ribs. This is caused by the leukemia cells clustering in the liver and thus, causing it to swell.

Loss of weight and appetite

A child with leukemia may lose his appetite and thus, gradually lose a lot of weight because of the enlargement of the liver and spleen. The enlarged area would press other organs around it, including the stomach and would thus limit the capacity that it can contain.

Swelling of lymph nodes

Lymph nodes often swell when fighting against an infection in young children and their swelling is often a sign of an infection. In leukemia, the lymph nodes get enlarged as well and the swelling shows up as lumps below the skin. Once a doctor finds enlarged lymph nodes in a child, he should closely monitor the child for leukemia while giving treatment for the infection.

Breathing issues and cough

The thymus is affected by the cells of ALL and this is why a child with leukemia might suffer from breathing and cough problems. The thymus lies in the chest around the windpipe and when it gets enlarged because of the leukemia cells, it pressurizes the trachea (windpipe) which results in cough and in breathing problems.

Swelling of arms and face

Swelling of arms and face in the child is a very dangerous sign as it indicates of the SVC syndrome, which can be life threatening and needs immediate treatment. The SVC syndrome in a child with leukemia is caused by the pressing of the SVC (vein that takes blood back to the heart from the brain and arms) by the enlarged thymus. The pressure on SVC causes the blood to back up causing swelling in the face, arms and chest while it can also lead to dizziness, unconsciousness and headaches as well.

Seizures, headaches and vomiting

This is the sign of advanced leukemia as headaches, vision blurriness, vomiting and seizure shows that leukemia has already spread to the central nervous system.

Gum bleeding and rashes

When leukemia spreads to the skin, it causes a large number of small spots similar to rashes to appear across the skin. In AML, the leukemia cells even spread to the gums and cause bleeding and swelling in them.

Extreme weakness

In AML, when the amount of leukemia cells in the body reach high numbers, the blood flow slows down around the small blood vessels in the brain because the leukemia cells thicken the blood and this leads to extreme fatigue and weakness. This is usually rare but an alarming sign of advanced AML in children.

How to Confirm Leukemia in Children

Exhibiting signs of leukemia in children is not a 100% way to confirm it. Leukemia is usually confirmed with a bone marrow test. The test is conducted by getting some bone marrow from a hipbone of the child. Even though the procedure appears painful, it only takes about fifteen minutes with the child sedated during the entire time. The marrow is then tested to confirm or deny the presence of leukemia.

Mostly the process starts when your child’s health continues to deteriorate without any normal reason. The regular pediatrician would refer to pediatric oncologist who might start with various blood tests to identify any abnormality in the number of white and red blood cells and platelets. In case any unusual results are found, the oncologist would only then call for the bone marrow test.

How Is Leukemia in Children Treated?


The primary treatment of childhood leukemia is chemotherapy which is administered either through the mouth or through a vein or spinal fluid. The treatment method is decided based on the results of the blood profile of the child with the drugs and dosages selected accordingly. Radiation therapy, stem cell transplants and targeted therapy are other treatments that are used for childhood leukemia.

Leukemia can be treated successfully with chemotherapy being very successful. Around 90% of the children containing no cancer calls at the end of their treatments. Permanent remission (no chance of relapse) is achieved in most childhood leukemia cases though early diagnosis remains important.

Side Effects from Treatments

Children suffer from various side-effects because of the intensive chemotherapy. The usual side-effects include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, hair loss along with short-term exposition to various infections and diseases. The doctors usually administer treatment for every side-effect which shows up while doing chemotherapy.

Know the Types of Leukemia

Leukemia’s two main types are acute and chronic with acute leukemia common amongst the children. Acute leukemia grows very fast while chronic leukemia develops slowly.

Acute leukemia can be further classified into two types based on which type of white blood cells is being affected. If the involved cells are lymphocytes, the acute leukemia is called Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) and if the involved cells are myelocytes, the acute leukemia is called Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). Other less common types of leukemia include Juvenile Myelomonocytic Leukemia (JMML) and Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML).

Lymphoblastic leukemia is the more common between the two types of acute leukemia with only 20% of the children suffering from AML. AML is found more in children below the age of 2 and above the age of 10 while ALL is diagnosed in children mostly aged between 2 to 8 years.

Watch a video to learn more on treating Leukemia in children: