Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a quickly progressing (acute) cancer of the white blood cells. These white blood cells, also called lymphocytes, are produced in the bone marrow (inner part of the bones) and are part of our body’s immune system which fights infections. The bone marrow also makes red blood cells (which carry oxygen to all the cells of our body) and platelets (which help our blood clot). ALL occurs when cancerous, immature white blood cells are overproduced in the bone marrow, which limits the production of other blood cells, such as red blood cells and platelets. ALL is most common among children ages 2 through 5 and the elderly. The symptoms that result are fever, shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain, vomiting, increased bleeding, bleeding from the gums, and an increased risk of infections like pneumonia.
Diagnosis of ALL includes examining family history, a physical exam, blood counts, and a blood smear. A bone marrow biopsy may also be used to make a concrete diagnosis. Treatments have improved over the years, and about 80% of children diagnosed with ALL are cured. However, the prognosis for older individuals suffering from ALL are less positive. There are many treatment options such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, biological therapy, and immunotherapy. These may be used alone or in combination with each other. While treatment and survival has improved, early detection is key. It is important to talk to your doctor as soon as possible if you think you or your child may have ALL.