Treatment of Leukemia
People with leukemia have many treatment options. The options are:
- Watchful Waiting
- Targeted Therapy
- Biological Therapy
- Radiation Therapy
- Stem Cell Transplant
Watchful WaitingPeople with chronic lymphocytic leukemia who do not have symptoms may be able to put off having cancer treatment. By delaying treatment, they can avoid the side effects of treatment until they have symptoms. If you and your doctor agree that watchful waiting is a good idea, you’ll have regular checkups (such as every 3 months). You can start treatment if symptoms occur.
ChemotherapyChemotherapy uses drugs to destroy leukemia cells. Depending on the type of leukemia, you may receive a single drug or a combination of two or more drugs. You may receive chemotherapy in several different ways:
- By mouth
- Into a vein (IV).
- Through a catheter
- Into the cerebrospinal fluid: It is given in two ways
- Into the spinal fluid
- Under the scalp
Targeted TherapyPeople with chronic myeloid leukemia and some with acute lymphoblastic leukemia may receive drugs called targeted therapy. Targeted therapies use drugs that block the growth of leukemia cells. For example, a targeted therapy may block the action of an abnormal protein that stimulates the growth of leukemia cells. Side effects include swelling, bloating, and sudden weight gain. Targeted therapy can also cause anemia, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle cramps, or a rash.
Biological TherapySome people with leukemia receive drugs called biological therapy. Biological therapy for leukemia is treatment that improves the body’s natural defenses against the disease. One type of biological therapy is a substance called a monoclonal antibody. It’s given by IV infusion. This substance binds to the leukemia cells. One kind of monoclonal antibody carries a toxin that kills the leukemia cells. Another kind helps the immune system destroy leukemia cells. For some people with chronic myeloid leukemia, the biological therapy is a drug called interferon. It is injected under the skin or into a muscle. It can slow the growth of leukemia cells.
Radiation TherapyRadiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill leukemia cells. Some people receive radiation from a large machine that is aimed at the spleen, the brain, or other parts of the body where leukemia cells have collected. This type of therapy takes place 5 days a week for several weeks. Others may receive radiation that is directed to the whole body. The radiation treatments are given once or twice a day for a few days, usually before a stem cell transplant. The side effects of radiation therapy depend mainly on the dose of radiation and the part of the body that is treated. For example, radiation to your abdomen can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. In addition, your skin in the area being treated may become red, dry, and tender. You also may lose your hair in the treated area.
Stem Cell TransplantA stem cell transplant allows you to be treated with high doses of drugs, radiation, or both. The high doses destroy both leukemia cells and normal blood cells in the bone marrow. After you receive high-dose chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or both, you receive healthy stem cells through a large vein. New blood cells develop from the transplanted stem cells. The new blood cells replace the ones that were destroyed by treatment. Stem cells may come from you or from someone who donates their stem cells to you:
- From you: An autologous stem cell transplant uses your own stem cells. Before you get the high-dose chemotherapy or radiation therapy, your stem cells are removed. The cells may be treated to kill any leukemia cells present. Your stem cells are frozen and stored. After you receive high-dose chemotherapy or radiation therapy, the stored stem cells are thawed and returned to you.
- From a family member or other donor: An allogeneic stem cell transplant uses healthy stem cells from a donor. Your brother, sister, or parent may be the donor. Sometimes the stem cells come from a donor who isn’t related. Doctors use blood tests to learn how closely a donor’s cells match your cells.
- From your identical twin: If you have an identical twin, a syngeneic stem cell transplant uses stem cells from your healthy twin.