Skip to Content
Home > Patients & Visitors > Health Library > Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Patient Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many immature lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell).
Childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (also called ALL or acute lymphocytic leukemia) is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. This type of cancer usually gets worse quickly if it is not treated.
ALL is the most common type of cancer in children.
In a healthy child, the bone marrow makes blood stem cells (immature cells) that become mature blood cells over time. A blood stem cell may become a myeloid stem cell or a lymphoid stem cell.
A myeloid stem cell becomes one of three types of mature blood cells:
A lymphoid stem cell becomes a lymphoblast cell and then one of three types of lymphocytes (white blood cells):
Blood cell development. A blood stem cell goes through several steps to become a red blood cell, platelet, or white blood cell.
In a child with ALL, too many stem cells become lymphoblasts, B lymphocytes, or T lymphocytes. These cells are cancer (leukemia) cells. The leukemia cells do not work like normal lymphocytes and are not able to fight infection very well. Also, as the number of leukemia cells increases in the blood and bone marrow, there is less room for healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. This may lead to infection, anemia, and easy bleeding.
This summary is about acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children, teenagers, and young adults. See the following PDQ summaries for information about other types of leukemia:
Family history and being exposed to radiation may affect the risk of having childhood ALL.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your child's doctor if you think your child may be at risk.
Possible risk factors for ALL include the following:
Signs of childhood ALL include fever and bruising.
These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by childhood ALL or by other conditions. Check with your child's doctor if your child has any of the following:
Tests that examine the blood and bone marrow are used to detect (find) and diagnose childhood ALL.
The following tests and procedures may be used to diagnose childhood ALL and find out if leukemia cells have spread to other parts of the body such as the brain or testicles:
The following tests may be done on the tissue that is removed:
This procedure is done after leukemia is diagnosed to find out if leukemia cells have spread to the brain and spinal cord. Intrathecal chemotherapy is given after the sample of fluid is removed to treat any leukemia cells that may have spread to the brain and spinal cord.
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
The prognosis (chance of recovery) depends on:
Treatment options depend on:
For leukemia that relapses (comes back) after initial treatment, the prognosis and treatment options depend partly on the following:
In childhood ALL, risk groups are used to plan treatment.
There are two risk groups in childhood ALL. They are described as:
Other factors that affect the risk group include the following:
It is important to know the risk group in order to plan treatment. Children with high-risk ALL usually receive more anticancer drugs and higher doses of anticancer drugs than children with standard-risk ALL.
Relapsed childhood ALL is cancer that has come back after it has been treated. The leukemia may come back in the blood and bone marrow, brain, spinal cord, testicles, or other parts of the body.
There are different types of treatment for childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
Different types of treatment are available for children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment.
Because cancer in children is rare, taking part in a clinical trial should be considered. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Children with ALL should have their treatment planned by a team of doctors with expertise in treating childhood leukemia.
Treatment will be overseen by a pediatric oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating children with cancer. The pediatric oncologist works with other pediatric health professionals who are experts in treating children with leukemia and who specialize in certain areas of medicine. These may include the following specialists:
Regular follow-up exams are very important. Treatment can cause side effects long after it has ended. These are called late effects. Radiation therapy to the brain may cause changes in mood, feelings, thinking, learning, or memory. Children younger than 4 years have a higher risk of side effects from radiation therapy to the brain.
Late effects of treatment for ALL also include the risk of second cancers (new types of cancer), especially brain tumors.
Some late effects may be treated or controlled. It is important to talk with your child's doctors about the possible late effects caused by some treatments. See the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer.
The treatment of childhood ALL usually has three phases.
The treatment of childhood ALL is done in phases:
Four types of standard treatment are used:
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid (intrathecal), an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). Combination chemotherapy is treatment using more than one anticancer drug.
The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the child's risk group. Children with high-risk ALL receive more anticancer drugs and higher doses of anticancer drugs than children with standard-risk ALL.
See Drugs Approved for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia for more information.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. External radiation therapy may be used to treat childhood ALL that has spread, or may spread, to the brain and spinal cord.
Chemotherapy with stem cell transplant
Stem cell transplant is a method of giving high doses of chemotherapy and sometimes total-body irradiation, and then replacing the blood-forming cells destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of a donor. After the patient receives treatment, the donor's stem cells are given to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the patient's blood cells. The stem cell donor doesn't have to be related to the patient.
Stem cell transplant is rarely used as initial treatment for children and teenagers with ALL. It is used more often as part of treatment for ALL that relapses (comes back after treatment).
Targeted therapy is a treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells.
Tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) are targeted therapy drugs that block the enzyme, tyrosine kinase, which causes stem cells to become more white blood cells or blasts than the body needs. Imatinib mesylate (Gleevec) is a TKI used in the treatment of children with Philadelphia chromosome –positive ALL.
New kinds of targeted therapies are also being studied in the treatment of childhood ALL.
Treatment is given to kill leukemia cells that have spread or may spread to the brain, spinal cord, or testicles.
Treatment to kill leukemia cells or prevent the spread of leukemia cells to the brain and spinal cord is called CNS-directed therapy. Chemotherapy may be used to treat leukemia cells that have spread, or may spread, to the brain and spinal cord. Because standard chemotherapy may not reach leukemia cells in the CNS (brain and spinal cord), the cells are able to hide in the CNS. Systemic chemotherapy given in high doses or intrathecal chemotherapy (into the cerebrospinal fluid) is able to reach leukemia cells in the CNS. Sometimes external radiation therapy to the brain is also given.
Intrathecal chemotherapy. Anticancer drugs are injected into the intrathecal space, which is the space that holds the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF, shown in blue). There are two different ways to do this. One way, shown in the top part of the figure, is to inject the drugs into an Ommaya reservoir (a dome-shaped container that is placed under the scalp during surgery; it holds the drugs as they flow through a small tube into the brain). The other way, shown in the bottom part of the figure, is to inject the drugs directly into the CSF in the lower part of the spinal column, after a small area on the lower back is numbed.
These treatments are given in addition to treatment that is used to kill leukemia cells in the rest of the body. All children with ALL receive CNS-directed therapy as part of induction therapy and consolidation/intensification therapy and sometimes during maintenance therapy.
If the leukemia cells spread to the testicles, treatment includes high doses of chemotherapy and sometimes radiation therapy.
New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.
Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.
Follow-up tests may be needed.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests. This is sometimes called re-staging.
Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your child's condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy is done during all phases of treatment to see how well the treatment is working.
Newly Diagnosed Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (Standard Risk)
The treatment of standard-risk childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) during the remission induction, consolidation /intensification, and maintenance phases always includes combination chemotherapy. Children who are not in remission after having combination chemotherapy during the induction phase may be helped by more chemotherapy. When they are in remission, a stem cell transplant using stem cells from a donor may be done.
Intrathecal chemotherapy is given to prevent the spread of leukemia cells to the brain and spinal cord.
Treatments being studied in clinical trials for standard-risk ALL include new chemotherapy regimens.
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with untreated childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. Talk with your child's doctor about clinical trials that may be right for your child. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Newly Diagnosed Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (High Risk)
The treatment of high-risk childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) during the remission induction, consolidation /intensification, and maintenance phases always includes combination chemotherapy. Children in the high-risk ALL group are given more anticancer drugs and higher doses of anticancer drugs, especially during the consolidation/intensification phase, than children in the standard-risk group.
Intrathecal and systemic chemotherapy are given to prevent the spread of leukemia cells to the brain and spinal cord. Sometimes radiation therapy to the brain is also given.
Treatments being studied in clinical trials for high-risk ALL include new chemotherapy regimens and stem cell transplant.
Newly Diagnosed Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (Special Groups)
T-cell childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia
The treatment of T-cell childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) during the remission induction, consolidation /intensification, and maintenance phases always includes combination chemotherapy. Children with T-cell ALL are given more anticancer drugs and higher doses of anticancer drugs than children with B-cell ALL in the standard-risk group.
Treatments being studied in clinical trials for T-cell ALL include new anticancer agents and chemotherapy regimens.
Infants with ALL
The treatment of infants with ALL during the remission induction, consolidation /intensification, and maintenance phases always includes combination chemotherapy. Infants with ALL are given different anticancer drugs and higher doses of anticancer drugs than children 1 year and older in the standard-risk group. It is not clear whether a stem cell transplant during first remission improves survival.
Intrathecal and systemic chemotherapy are given to prevent the spread of leukemia cells to the brain and spinal cord.
Treatments being studied in clinical trials for infants with ALL include the following:
Children 10 years and older and teenagers with ALL
The treatment of ALL in children and teenagers (10 years and older) during the remission induction, consolidation /intensification, and maintenance phases always includes combination chemotherapy. Children 10 years and older and teenagers with ALL are given more anticancer drugs and higher doses of anticancer drugs than children in the standard-risk group.
Treatments being studied in clinical trials for children 10 years and older and teenagers with ALL include new anticancer agents and chemotherapy regimens.
Philadelphia chromosome–positive ALL
The treatment of Philadelphia chromosome –positive childhood ALL during the remission induction, consolidation /intensification, and maintenance phases may include the following:
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with T-cell childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia and Philadelphia chromosome positive childhood precursor acute lymphoblastic leukemia. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. Talk with your child's doctor about clinical trials that may be right for your child. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Relapsed Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia
Standard treatment of relapsed childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) that comes back in the bone marrow may include the following:
Standard treatment of relapsed childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) that comes back outside the bone marrow may include the following:
Some of the treatments being studied in clinical trials for relapsed childhood ALL include:
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with recurrent childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. Talk with your child's doctor about clinical trials that may be right for your child. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia, see the following:
For more childhood cancer information and other general cancer resources, see the following:
The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.
Editorial changes were made to this summary.
Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.
PDQ is a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the federal government's center of biomedical research. The PDQ summaries are based on an independent review of the medical literature. They are not policy statements of the NCI or the NIH.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the treatment of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
Reviewers and Updates
Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") is the date of the most recent change.
The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board.
Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Clinical trials are listed in PDQ and can be found online at NCI's Web site. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
Permission to Use This Summary
PDQ is a registered trademark. The content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text. It cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless the whole summary is shown and it is updated regularly. However, a user would be allowed to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks in the following way: [include excerpt from the summary]."
The best way to cite this PDQ summary is:
National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/childALL/Patient. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.
Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use in the PDQ summaries only. If you want to use an image from a PDQ summary and you are not using the whole summary, you must get permission from the owner. It cannot be given by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the images in this summary, along with many other images related to cancer can be found in Visuals Online. Visuals Online is a collection of more than 2,000 scientific images.
The information in these summaries should not be used to make decisions about insurance reimbursement. More information on insurance coverage is available on Cancer.gov on the Coping with Cancer: Financial, Insurance, and Legal Information page.
More information about contacting us or receiving help with the Cancer.gov Web site can be found on our Contact Us for Help page. Questions can also be submitted to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form.
For more information, U.S. residents may call the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Eastern Time. A trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.
The NCI's LiveHelp® online chat service provides Internet users with the ability to chat online with an Information Specialist. The service is available from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday. Information Specialists can help Internet users find information on NCI Web sites and answer questions about cancer.
Write to us
For more information from the NCI, please write to this address:
Search the NCI Web site
The NCI Web site provides online access to information on cancer, clinical trials, and other Web sites and organizations that offer support and resources for cancer patients and their families. For a quick search, use the search box in the upper right corner of each Web page. The results for a wide range of search terms will include a list of "Best Bets," editorially chosen Web pages that are most closely related to the search term entered.
There are also many other places to get materials and information about cancer treatment and services. Hospitals in your area may have information about local and regional agencies that have information on finances, getting to and from treatment, receiving care at home, and dealing with problems related to cancer treatment.
The NCI has booklets and other materials for patients, health professionals, and the public. These publications discuss types of cancer, methods of cancer treatment, coping with cancer, and clinical trials. Some publications provide information on tests for cancer, cancer causes and prevention, cancer statistics, and NCI research activities. NCI materials on these and other topics may be ordered online or printed directly from the NCI Publications Locator. These materials can also be ordered by telephone from the Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
Last Revised: 2014-04-17
If you want to know more about cancer and how it is treated, or if you wish to know about clinical trials for your type of cancer, you can call the NCI's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-422-6237, toll free. A trained information specialist can talk with you and answer your questions.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.
Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.
Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.
You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups, and pregnancy.
Send Us Your Feedback
North Kansas City Hospital.