Leukemia Treatment

Treating leukemia requires a proper understanding of the variety of conditions that make up this devastating and tragic disease. While all leukemias are cancers of the blood, some treatments affect different leukemias more so than others. To treat the correct form of the disease, doctors use a variety of tests which are designed to detect several different conditions.

Most leukemias are treated by a variety of anti-cancer drugs through chemotherapy. Specially designed drugs inhibit the bone marrow from producing excess white blood cells which reduce the likelihood of infection or disease. Occasionally, doctors need to use radiation to kill the malignant tissue, in combination with advanced chemotherapy. For the more acute types of leukemia, doctors attempt the most radical treatment, which involves transplanting compatible bone marrow into a leukemia patient.

Drug Therapy

Treating leukemia with drugs is the primary focus in clinical settings. These drugs are designed to kill cancer-causing cells in the bone marrow in order to enable the body to limit the over or underproduction of white blood cells and to prevent their spread into other bodily systems. Drug therapy shuts down the rapid reproduction of the stem cells in the bone marrow, but unfortunately these drugs are not selective in the cells they affect, and consequently, many other systems are affected as well. People undergoing drug therapy often experience hair loss, anemia, and nausea, for the rapidly replicating cells in the hair, blood, and stomach are all affected by these anti-cancer drugs.

There is also a unique danger to treating leukemia with drugs. Tumor lysis syndrome is a dangerous condition caused by a rapid breakdown of cancerous cells into the bloodstream. Anti-cancer drugs attack and split apart malignant cells, which causes them to release minerals, metabolic byproducts, and cell fragments directly into the blood. Should these chemicals accumulate before the body has a chance to filter them, the condition can cause nausea, convulsions, and even coma and death if left untreated.

Despite the dangers of drug therapy, the ultimate goal is to force leukemia into remission. Once the cancer is destroyed, doctors aim to prevent it from reoccurring, but the various types of leukemias and their different effects on the quality of life make a blanket approach to treating leukemia difficult. Even though newer and more advanced drugs are in continuous development, there will always be some risk when doctors introduce a foreign substance into the body. Consult your doctor for your best treatment option.


Leukemia has the reputation of being one of the most notoriously difficulty cancers to treat. In the early years after its discovery in the 19 th century, doctors were at a total loss to relieve the pain of leukemia, let alone try to cure it. While even in the 21 st century doctors cannot cure most forms of leukemia, they are beginning to understand how to better treat patients afflicted with this terrible condition.

Chemotherapy is the standard treatment option for leukemia patients. Specialized anti-cancer drugs are introduced into the bloodstream either through an intravenous feed or in pills which must be swallowed. These drugs attack the cancerous cells in the bone marrow, but unfortunately attack many other healthy cells as well. Some of the typical side effects of chemotherapy include:

  • Hair loss
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Anemia
  • Suppression of the immune system which can result in potentially lethal infections
  • Hemorrhaging

Treating leukemia with chemotherapy is usually very effective because the cancerous cells in the bone marrow replicate so fast that drugs can kill them before they can do more damage. Depending on the type and severity of leukemia, these drugs may even cause the cancer to go into remission, which is the absence of cancer symptoms.


A bone marrow transplant is one of the most evasive and difficult procedures doctors can attempt to perform in an effort to repair the damage caused by leukemia. Bone marrow is a fleshy, yellow or red colored tissue found at the center of large bones. This tissue is made up of two types of stems cells which provide the body with many necessary materials. The first type of stem cell is called hemopoietic, which produce blood cells, and the other is called stromal, which develop bone, fat, and cartilage. Leukemia occurs when the bone marrow produces unhealthy blood cells, which flow through the body and damage other systems.

If a patient has undergone extensive chemotherapy or radiation treatments for their leukemia, they will often require a bone marrow transplant to replace the tissues damaged by these drastic procedures. Additionally, children or adults with acute forms of leukemia need immediate marrow transplants to replace their defective tissues. In any case, bone marrow transplants are one of the most complicated and dangerous procedures. In addition to post-surgical trauma and infections, a condition called graft-versus-host disease sometimes causes the newly transplanted bone marrow to attack the recipient's tissues and bones. The combination of these different factors frequently pushes the morality rate of transplants past 10%.

Radiation Therapy

Because leukemia affects the quickly replicating cells in bone marrow, doctors have found that radiation treatments are an effective harmless way to inhibit their growth and spread. High dose radiation therapy kills the unhealthy cells in the bone marrow before they can grow into cancer. The body needs a constant supply of blood cells; therefore, the bone marrow works continuously to meet demand. This constant replication of cells actually aids radiation therapy, because the cancer cells it destroys are relatively young and weak. Radiation works particularly well in combination with chemotherapy, especially before and after the most evasive and dangerous leukemia treatment, bone marrow transplantation.

Radiation works by damaging the faulty DNA of cancer cells. High energy radiation enters the nucleus of the cell which prevents the cell from replicating itself during the process of tissue growth. Unlike most normal cells which have differentiated into tissues or organs, cancer cells are primitive and simple, which makes them relatively easy to kill. Older forms of radiation therapy required huge machines full of radioactive material that shot their beams through a patient's skin, often causing painful and uncomfortable skin irritation. Newer technology allows radiation delivery right to the site of the cancer, through tiny wires, tubes, and needles.


One of the most exciting developments in the world of leukemia treatment is the advent of what doctors refer to as "immunotherapy." The immune system of the body often does little to fight off cancer, because cancer is nothing more than the cell growth - albeit at an unhealthy and accelerated rate. This growth is overlooked by the immune system as a normal part of cell regeneration, and thus the cancer grows unabated. Essentially cancer deceives the immune system into thinking it is healthy, normal tissue.

Immunotherapy concentrates on finding the minute differences between healthy cells and cancerous cells. Once these differences are identified, doctors can introduce a virus into the body that attacks cells with these differences and leaves other cells alone. Unlike radiation and chemotherapy which harm normal cells and cause side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and hair loss, immunotherapy does not harm healthy tissues. Although immunotherapy is still in its infancy, the potential for curing cancer without negative side effects is finally within our grasp.

Multimodal Therapy

Because leukemia is one of the most complicated forms of cancer, many doctors elect to use more than one treatment method to ensure the health and survival of their patients. When leukemia was first discovered in the 19 th century, most doctors were at a loss to explain exactly how this cancer works, and even at the dawn of the 21 st century the exact nature of leukemia is still in doubt. Up until fairly recently, a diagnosis of leukemia was equivalent to a death sentence.

Fortunately, there are many ways to treat this devastating condition. Instead of using one means of treatment, doctors often use therapies that complement and enhance each other. Combining radiation with chemotherapy, doctors reduced a great number of the risks associated with a condition as deadly as leukemia. Should a patient need a bone marrow transplant, doctors will often prescribe high dose chemotherapy and radiation treatments to minimize the number of malignant blood cells in the body, so that the new bone marrow can begin to produce healthy cells without danger. In addition to the standards of drugs and radiation, new treatments such as immunotherapy show promise in leukemia treatment.

Other Therapies

Even in the modern 21st century, full of technological wonders and scientific advances, there are some of us who seek alternatives to impersonal and sometimes ineffective medical treatments. While most doctors recommend proven mainstream treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, there are growing numbers of physicians who promote alternative approaches in order to address the often systemic, or body-wide, affects of leukemia. Some less common approaches to treating leukemia include:

  • Acupuncture: Tiny needles are placed into the skin at certain sites on the body called meridians, which is believed to alter the flow of energy through the body. Acupuncture has been shown to reduce muscle pain and nausea caused by chemotherapy.
  • Coenzyme Q10: CoQ10 is a chemical sold in health food stores. CoQ10 is believed to stimulate the immune system and to help protect healthy tissues against the effects of radiation and chemotherapy.
  • Polysaccharide K: PSK, as it is known, is a derivative of a mushroom that has been widely used in Japan as a complement to medical treatments for cancer. It is believed to enhance the immune system and may have cancer-fighting properties.

Any type of treatment carries certain risks. Before attempting to self-treat leukemia with an alternative therapy, you should always talk over the potential dangers with your doctor.

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Page Description: Leukemia Treatment: Drug Therapy, Chemotherapy, Immunotherapy, Multimodal Therapy. Updated on 6/15/2006