People with leukemia have many treatment options. The choice of treatments for leukemia will depend on the type of leukemia (acute or chronic), stage of the cancer, and certain features of the leukemia cells as well as patient’s general health.
People with acute leukemia need to be treated immediately. The goal of acute leukemia treatment is to alleviate symptoms of leukemia in the body. This is called ‘remission’. Once people go into remission, more treatments may be given to prevent it from returning or recurrence. Most people with acute leukemia can be cured.
If you have chronic leukemia with no symptoms, you may not need immediate treatment. However, your doctor will watch your health closely to see whether the leukemia is progressing. This procedure is called ‘watchful waiting’. When symptoms of chronic leukemia do appear, treatment will be start right away. The chronic leukemia treatments can often control the disease and its symptoms. However, chronic leukemia can seldom be cured.
Leukemia Treatment Options
There are five common treatment options for Leukemia: Chemotherapy, Radiation Therapy, Targeted Therapy, Biological Therapy, and Stem Cell Transplantation. Most patients with leukemia are treated with chemotherapy. Some also may have radiation therapy, biological therapy and/or stem cell transplantation.
Leukemia chemotherapy is the main treatment for all types of leukemia. Because leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells, surgery is not an option as it is with solid tumors. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be given by mouth (pills), intravenously through an IV or catheter, or into the cerebrospinal fluid (intrathecally). Depending on the type of leukemia, patients may receive a single drug or a combination of two or more drugs to achieve the optimal therapeutic outcome.
Leukemia radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to kill leukemia cells or stop them from growing. Radiation therapy for leukemia patients may be given in two ways. Some patients receive radiation from a large machine that is aimed at specific area of the body such as spleen or testicles, where leukemia cells have collected. This type of therapy usually takes place 5 days a week over several weeks. Other patients may receive radiation that is directed to the whole body. This is called total-body irradiation. The radiation therapy is given once or twice a day for a few days, usually before a stem cell transplant.
Side effects of radiation therapy depend on the radiation dose and the part of body being treated. For example, radiation to your abdomen can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. In addition, your skin in the area being treated may become red and inflamed. You also may lose hair in the treated area. However, the side effects are not permanent, they will go away once the treatment stopped.
Leukemia biological therapy or also called ‘immunotherapy’ is a form of leukemia treatment that uses substances either made by the body or in a laboratory to improve the body’s immune system against cancer.
Interferon is a form of biological therapy that is used against some forms of leukemia. Some patients receive only biological therapy, while others also received chemotherapy at the same time.
Leukemia targeted therapy use drugs to block the growth of leukemia cells. For example, the drug Imatinib (Gleevec) stops the action of an abnormal protein within the leukemia cells of people with chronic myelogenous leukemia. This can help control the disease.
Side effects of targeted therapy include bloating, swelling, and sudden weight gain. Targeted therapy also can cause anemia, muscle cramps, rash, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Stem Cell Transplantation
Stem cell transplantation or bone marrow transplantation is a procedure to replace the bone marrow that has been damaged with healthy bone marrow. Before a stem cell transplant, you receive high doses of chemotherapy or radiation therapy to destroy your damaged bone marrow. Then you receive an infusion of blood-forming stem cells that help to rebuild your bone marrow. You may receive stem cells from a donor, or in some cases you may be able to use your own stem cells.
After a stem cell transplant, you may stay in hospital for several weeks or months. You will be at risk for bleeding and infection due to large doses of chemotherapy or radiation therapy you received. In time, the transplanted stem cells will begin to produce healthy blood cells.