Leukemia Treatment Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy for leukemia is often the first line of treatment, especially for cases of acute leukemia in children. Chemotherapy drugs aim to destroy fast-growing cancer cells.

Goals of Chemotherapy Leukemia Treatment

The goal of chemotherapy for acute leukemia in children and adults is remission, or a complete absence of leukemia cells in the bloodstream. For adults with chronic leukemia, the goal is either remission or slower progression of the disease.

High doses of chemotherapy drugs are also administered prior to bone marrow or stem cell transplantation. This is meant to kill existing leukemia cells and prepare the body for the transplanted stem cells.

Intrathecal Chemotherapy - Leukemia Treatment

Administering Chemotherapy Drugs

Chemotherapy drugs may be administered in outpatient settings or in the hospital, depending on factors such as the individual’s health and the type of leukemia.

Chemotherapy drugs may be taken in the following forms:

  • Intramuscular (injected directly into muscle tissue)
  • Intravenously (injected into a vein)
  • Orally (taken as a pill)
  • Subcutaneously (injected under the skin).

Chemotherapy drugs may also be administered intrathecally, or through a spinal tap. Intrathecal administration may be necessary if leukemia cells enter the nervous system. With this method, your doctor may insert a device called an Omaya reservoir under the scalp. This device may be an alternative to multiple spinal taps.

Chemotherapy Side Effects

Chemotherapy drugs target fast-growing cancer cells. Unfortunately, healthy cells may also be affected by chemotherapy treatment, resulting in chemotherapy side effects. The cells most subjected to chemotherapy side effects are:

  • Blood cells
  • Gastrointestinal tract cells
  • Hair follicles.

Possible chemotherapy side effects include:

  • Anemia (low levels of red blood cells)
  • Burning or pain in the mouth
  • Diarrhea and/or constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Infertility
  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Leucopenia (low levels of white blood cells)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mouth sores
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Skin rashes
  • Symptoms of menopause
  • Temporary hair loss
  • Thrombocytopenia (low platelet levels).

Many blood-related chemotherapy side effects have their own repercussions. For instance, leucopenia increases the risk of infection, thrombocytopenia causes easy bruising and bleeding, and anemia may cause:

  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath.

Tumor Lysis Syndrome

Chemotherapy for leukemia can result in a specific side effect called tumor lysis syndrome. This occurs when leukemia cells destroyed by chemotherapy drugs break down rapidly, releasing substances such as minerals and cell fragments into the blood. Leukemia patients are monitored closely for signs of this condition, since it can damage the:

  • Heart
  • Kidneys
  • Nervous system.

If tumor lysis syndrome occurs, doctors may prescribe the following to flush the unwanted cell fragments out of the bloodstream:

  • Allopurinal
  • Fluids
  • Sodium bicarbonate.

Targeted Leukemia Treatment

A new generation of chemotherapy drugs offers targeted leukemia treatment. These medications, including Imatinib, are designed to kill leukemia cells, while sparing healthy fast-growing cells. The result is therapy for leukemia with fewer unwanted side effects.


Health Communities. (1999). Leukemia: Chemotherapy. Retrieved March 26, 2010, from http://www.oncologychannel.com/leukemias/chemotherapy.shtml.

Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. (2004). Chemotherapy. Retrieved March 26, 2010, from http://www.leukemia-lymphoma.org/all_page.adp?item_id=8498.

National Cancer Institute. (2008). What you need to know about leukemia: Treatment. Retrieved March 26, 2010, from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/leukemia/page7#treatment2.

Schoenstadt, A. (n.d.). Leukemia chemotherapy treatment. Retrieved March 26, 2010, from http://leukemia.emedtv.com/leukemia/leukemia-chemotherapy-treatment.html.