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Leukemia is the most common form of cancer in childhood.
What causes leukemia in children?
In nearly all cases, it is not known what causes leukemia. The majority of childhood leukemias are acquired genetic diseases. This means that gene mutations and chromosome abnormalities in leukemia cells occur sporadically (by chance). The abnormalities found in leukemia cells are not found in the other cells of the body.
The immune system plays an important role in protecting the body from disease, and possibly cancer. An alteration or defect in the immune system may increase the risk for developing leukemia. Factors such as exposure to certain viruses, environmental factors, chemical exposures, and infections have been associated with damage to the immune system, but none of these factors has been definitively linked as a cause of childhood leukemia.
What are the different types of leukemia?
There are three main types of leukemia, including the following:
It is thought that lymphoblastic and myelogenous leukemias differ based upon the stage of development of the cell in which the leukemia arises. The pluripotent stem cell is the first stage of development of all of the blood cells (white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets). This stem cell goes through stages of development until it matures into a functioning cell. The type of leukemia (lymphoblastic or myelogenous) is determined by where the cell is in its stage of development when it become malignant, or cancerous.
Early in its development, the stem cell becomes either a lymphocyte precursor cell or a myeloid precursor cell. The lymphoid cells mature into either B-lymphocytes or T-lymphocytes. If the leukemia develops in one of these cells, it is called acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). It can be further classified as either B-cell precursor or T-cell ALL, depending on the type of lymphoid precursor cell. If the leukemia is found even further along this stage of development, it is sometimes referred to as a mature B-cell ALL or T-cell ALL.
The myeloid cells develop into platelets, red blood cells and specialized white blood cells called nurtrophils and macrophages. There are many classifications of AML. The types of leukemia is determined by the stage of development when the normal cells become leukemia cells.
What are the symptoms of leukemia?
Because leukemia is cancer of the blood-forming tissue called the bone marrow, the initial symptoms are often related to abnormal bone marrow function. The bone marrow is responsible for storing and producing about 95 percent of the body's blood cells, including the red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
When leukemia occurs, the abnormal white blood cells (blasts) begin to reproduce very rapidly and begin crowding out and competing for nutrients and space with the other healthy cells. The following are the most common symptoms of leukemia. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
With acute leukemia (ALL or AML), these symptoms may occur suddenly in a matter of days or weeks. With chronic leukemia (CML), these symptoms may develop slowly over months to years.
It is important to understand that the symptoms of leukemia may resemble other blood disorders or medical problems. These are common symptoms of the disease, but do not include all possible symptoms. Children may experience symptoms differently. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.
We are grateful to have been ranked #1 on U.S. News & World Report's list of the best children's hospitals in the nation for the third year in a row, an honor we could not have achieved without the patients and families who inspire us to do our very best for them. Thanks to you, Boston Children's is a place where we can write the greatest children's stories ever told.”