Treatment for your leukemia depends on many factors. Your doctor determines your leukemia treatment options based on your age and overall health, the type of leukemia you have, and whether it has spread to other parts of your body.
Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer drugs. The aim is to destroy all cancer cells while doing the least possible damage to normal cells. The drugs work by stopping cancer cells from growing and reproducing.
Chemotherapy drugs are usually taken intravenously, that is, they are injected or infused into a vein. To avoid having repeated injections, a long-lasting catheter in a vein is usually used. The drugs can then be added to a fluid drip attached to the catheter.
Some chemotherapy is in tablet form or given as injections under the skin. Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia is usually treated in this way.
For some people, chemotherapy for acute leukaemia will mean spending several weeks in hospital. Others may be able to stay at home but will need regular hospital visits for check-ups and further treatments.
Three different phases of chemotherapy are used to treat acute leukaemia – induction therapy, consolidation therapy and maintenance therapy.
Treatment begins with induction therapy, which usually lasts four to six weeks. This is a phase of intense treatment aimed at destroying as many abnormal white blood cells as possible. The aim is to effect a remission.
You′re said to be in remission when there are no signs of leukaemia in your blood and bone marrow.
After remission, people with acute lymphocytic leukaemia have extra treatment. As microscopic collections of leukaemic cells may have spread to the spinal fluid, chemotherapy drugs are injected directly into the fluid around your spine. You may also have radiotherapy.
In children, radiotherapy is often not used because it may affect growth and development.
After remission, more chemotherapy can be used to try to stop the cancer coming back (called a relapse). The goal of this second phase of treatment is to destroy any cancer cells that may have survived the first treatment. A number of different chemotherapy drugs are usually used. This is in case the leukaemia cells are resistant to any one drug.
Maintenance therapy is the final stage of treatment for acute lymphocytic leukaemia in children. It′s given over a longer period of time (two to three years), but its aim is the same: to destroy remaining cancer cells.
In most of the acute myeloid leukaemias, the role and duration of maintenance chemotherapy is still being studied. In many people it isn′t currently used.
In general, this phase of treatment isn′t as intense as the first two phases. It may sometimes be replaced by stem cell (bone marrow) transplantation after high-dose chemotherapy.