Leukemia Treatment

Successful treatment for leukemia destroys cancerous cells while encouraging the growth of normal blood cells in the bone marrow. However, because leukemia is a cancer of the blood, it is more complicated to treat than many other cancers.

While treatment for many cancers involves surgical removal of cancerous tumors, treatment for leukemia can be comprised of a range of different therapies. Leukemia treatment is tailored to an individual patient’s needs, depending on:

  • Age of the patient
  • Disease progression
  • Other health considerations
  • Type of leukemia.

Chemotherapy for Leukemia

Many patients receive chemotherapy for leukemia. Leukemia chemotherapy treatment uses drugs to kill cancerous cells, with the ultimate goal of disease remission. If leukemia is in remission, leukemia cells have been destroyed and replaced with healthy cells.

Once leukemia is in remission, doctors administer additional chemotherapy to ensure any remaining cancer cells or new leukemia cells are destroyed. Chemotherapy is a common treatment for acute leukemia.

Chemotherapy Side Effects

Chemotherapy for leukemia works by killing fast-growing cancer cells. However, chemotherapy medications can also damage healthy cells, causing unwanted chemotherapy side effects, including:

  • Diarrhea
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Fertility problems
  • Hair loss
  • Increased infections
  • Irregular menstrual periods or symptoms of menopause
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mouth or lip sores
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weakness.

The severity of chemotherapy side effects must be balanced against the effectiveness of leukemia treatment. However, the benefits usually outweigh the side effects.

Radiation Therapy

Treatment of leukemia may include radiation therapy to destroy cancer cells. Radiation may be targeted at specific areas of the body where there are many leukemia cells, or the entire body. Like chemotherapy, radiation therapy can have side effects, including fatigue and tender skin.

Watchful Waiting

Acute leukemia requires aggressive, fast-acting treatment to stop the cancer’s rapid progression. However, chronic lymphocytic leukemia may not require as rapid a treatment response. Watchful waiting may be appropriate for chronic leukemia treatment.

If you opt for this method, your doctor will monitor you for leukemia symptoms during regular checkups. Watchful waiting can be risky, and the absence of symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean the disease doesn’t require treatment.

Bone Marrow Transplants and Leukemia Treatment

A bone marrow transplant replaces cancerous bone marrow with donor bone marrow cells. High doses of chemotherapy and radiation destroy original bone marrow, which is replaced with the new, healthy bone marrow.

Stem Cell Transplantation

Stem cell transplantation is similar to bone marrow transplantation. Instead of bone marrow, however, healthy stem cells are harvested from either the patient’s blood or a donor’s blood. Recovery rates for stem cell transplantation are faster than for bone marrow transplants and there is less risk of infection.

Biological Therapy

Biological therapy, or immunotherapy, is a relatively new treatment for leukemia that strengthens the body’s immune system, increasing its ability to fight disease. For example, a monoclonal antibody may be used to treat CLL.

Targeted Treatment of Leukemia

Treatment of leukemia may include the use of medication that impairs the growth of leukemia cells. The medication imatinib, for instance, is a targeted treatment used to treat chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML).


Mayo Clinic. (2008). Leukemia: Treatment and drugs. Retrieved March 13, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/leukemia/DS00351/DSECTION=treatments-and-drugs.

MedicineNet. (2010). Leukemia: Treatment. Retrieved March 12, 2010, from http://www.medicinenet.com/leukemia/page5.htm.

Oncology Channel. (n.d.). Leukemia treatment. Retrieved March 12, 2010, from http://www.oncologychannel.com/leukemias/treatment.shtml.