Published on July 31, 2020
What Is Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia?
Imagine being a parent of a young child who was just diagnosed with cancer. The shock is overwhelming. This was true for Kristin and Garrett Leihsing, whose young son, Jaden, was diagnosed with precursor B-acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a type of leukemia derived from immature B cells. The signs and symptoms of acute leukemia in children are fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, reoccurring infections, fevers, night sweats, bone and belly pain as well as bruising.
“Pediatric leukemia is the most common type of childhood cancer,” said Jaden’s oncologist, Dr. Allison Grimes, in an interview with Patient Power Co-Founder Andrew Schorr.
According to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, ALL occurs most frequently in children aged 3 to 5 and affects boys slightly more than girls. It is a cancer that affects the white blood cells, which fight infection and help protect the body against disease.
After the initial shock of the leukemia diagnosis, the Leihsings had to put a plan together for Jaden’s treatment. The two-and-a-half-year odyssey is finally coming to a close as Jaden completed his final treatment.
How Common is Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in Kids?
ALL is the most common subtype in children. The good news is that survival rates have drastically improved since the 1960s when this diagnosis was often fatal. Great gains have been made in early detection and supportive care, according to Dr. Grimes, and now the long term prognosis is a 90 percent to 95 percent cure rate or minimal residual disease (MRD). Patients with MRD often get a fine-tuned therapeutic approach and much can be learned to help new patients down the road.
You’re Cured, What’s Next?
When children go through acute lymphoblastic leukemia treatment — or any type of treatment for cancer — oncologists work hard to minimize the late effects of cancer treatment such as growth deficiencies, and kidney or heart issues.
Pediatric patients often have a lot of growing up yet to do. It’s not only important to treat the whole patient, it’s important to think about the future of that patient. Other side effects and factors such as fertility preservation should be discussed before starting treatment.
The Future of Cancer Research and Clinical Trials
The field of oncology continues to evolve as new leukemia treatments and methods are developed.
“We're now moving away from only chemotherapy into combination chemotherapy and immunotherapy, not just for relapsed patients. Now up-front management for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, for many patients, actually includes immunotherapy, depending on your response to induction,” Dr. Grimes said.
Immunotherapies harness the power of the immune system to help the patient help themselves. In an upcoming Patient Power video, Dr. Grimes explains how BiTE therapy works.
“It triggers the body's own innate immune system that then mounts an attack, kind of like you would to an infection,” she said.
This differs from chemotherapy, which introduces chemicals into the system to kill the cancer, but it also kills some of the healthy cells along the way. Researchers are also exploring targeted therapy and stem cell transplants for treating leukemia and other types of cancer.
Keeping the Family Intact
Pediatric cancer diagnoses are terrifying for parents and the patient, but also for other family members, such as siblings. Jaden’s twin and their sister Emma also had to undergo the uncertainty of what was happening during and after treatment.
Children process stress differently than adults, so it’s important to check-in, perhaps involve a counselor or clergy, to help along the way. Helpful online meal services enable the community to help too. A hot meal goes a long way after a trying day at the clinic. And many families appreciate the thoughtfulness.
Lastly, finding a community of parents who are going through the same thing as the Leihsing family was helpful for them. Nobody better understands what they are going through than other care partners and their families.
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- Lauren Evoy Davis
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