Expect 1 to 2 Week Shipping Delays. Due to high call volumes, please click here if you need to contact us.

Treating Leukemia with Chemotherapy

Monday 7 September 2020
Blood Disorders

Table of Contents


I. What is Leukemia?

a. White Blood Cells

b. Symptoms of Leukemia

c. Types of Leukemia

II. What Causes Leukemia?

a. Risk Factors

III. Chemotherapy for Leukemia

a. CML Chemotherapy

b. AML Chemotherapy

c. CLL and ALL Chemotherapy


What is Leukemia?

Leukemia is a form of cancer that affects blood cells. There are approximately 375,000 people in the United States that have leukemia or are living in remission. [1] Around 170 Americans are diagnosed with this cancer every day, while on average, 67 Americans lose their fight against the condition. [2] 

a. White Blood Cells

There are several different forms of leukemia and they typically involve white blood cells. Leukemia typically affects a person’s white blood cells (WBCs). White blood cells only make up around one percent of all blood cells, but they are a vital part of the body. [3] White blood cells are produced by the bone marrow and help protect you against illnesses, infections, and other foreign substances. There are several different types of white blood cells that help to recognize and kill harmful bacteria and create antibodies that can help protect the body against future problems. [4]

People that have leukemia have white blood cells that function differently than other WBCs. These abnormal cells divide at a quicker rate than normal cells and can eventually outnumber normal white blood cells.

a person getting blood drawn

b. Symptoms of Leukemia

There are several symptoms of leukemia. Some forms of leukemia may not have any obvious symptoms during the early stages of the disease. Common symptoms of leukemia can include:

  • Easy bruising or unusual bleeding, including nosebleeds, bleeding gums, or bloody urine
  • Increased infections, headaches, mouth sores, and fever
  • Loss of weight or appetite
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, or groin
  • Swollen spleen leading to discomfort under the left-sided ribs
  • Anemia leading to fatigue, pallor, or feeling ill
  • High white blood cell count causing a stroke, ringing of the ears, prolonged erection or vision problems [5]

c. Types of Leukemia

There are several different forms of leukemia. The condition can be chronic or acute. Chronic leukemia develops in mature cells and develops slowly. By contrast, acute leukemia develops and multiplies rapidly. Leukemia can also be categorized as lymphocytic or myelogenous. Lymphocytic leukemia develops in a specific type of WBCs called lymphocytes. Myelogenous leukemia develops in other white blood cells, red blood cells, or platelets. The four main types of leukemia are:

  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
  • Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML)
  • Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML)

CLL is the most common form of leukemia in adults and ALL is the most common in young children. [6] Keep reading to learn more about leukemia, including the causes, symptoms, and how it is treated with chemotherapy drugs such as Hydrea (hydroxyurea).

What Causes Leukemia?

The exact cause of leukemia is unknown. However, scientists believe that it is caused by a mixture of genetic and environmental factors.

Leukemia is a result of the DNA that develops blood cells becoming damaged. The condition begins in stem cells, which are rudimentary cells that later develop into different cells with specific functions.

When the DNA damage occurs, blood cells, particularly white blood cells, continue to grow and divide rapidly. These white blood cells are defective and are unable to fight infection. Additionally, as these WBCs quickly divide, they begin to outnumber healthy cells and prevent them from functioning as normal. [7]

a. Risk Factors

There are several risk factors that may increase the risk of developing leukemia. However, it is worth noting that most people with these risk factors do not develop the condition, and many people with leukemia may have none of the following risk factors:

Smoking: Although smoking is not a direct cause of leukemia, it may increase the risk of developing the condition by up to 30 percent. [8] In particular, smoking can increase the risk of AML.

A man lighting up a cigarette

Family History: It is believed that leukemia is partially genetic. If you have a family history of leukemia, you may be more likely to develop the condition yourself.

Genetic Disorders: Some genetic disorders can also increase the risk of leukemia. This includes down syndrome and Li-Fraumeni syndrome.

Cancer Treatment: People that have previously had cancer treatment have an increased risk of developing leukemia. These treatments include radiation therapy and certain chemotherapy.

Chemical Exposure: Certain chemicals may also increase the risk of developing this cancer. This includes certain pesticides and solvent benzene.  

Chemotherapy for Leukemia

Chemotherapy is a major method of leukemia treatment. Chemotherapy is the destruction of cancerous cells by medication. The type of leukemia that you have will determine if you receive one medication or multiple. Chemotherapy drugs may be injected directly into veins or come as a pill to take orally. Chemotherapy medications enter the bloodstream so they are useful for treating leukemia and other cancers across the whole body.  

a. CML Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is less common in treating CML these days. However, Hydrea (hydroxyurea) is still a common medication to treat chronic myeloid leukemia. Hydroxyurea is a fast-acting medication that reduces levels of white blood cells so that other treatments may be used. Hydrea is typically used for short periods of time. Hydrea also works to shrink an enlarged spleen. [9]

A young girl receiving chemotherapy in her hospital bed

b. AML Chemotherapy

Acute myeloid leukemia is often treated with a combination of cytarabine and anthracycline medication. AML drugs are usually given through an IV in the arm. The aim of AML treatment is to clear the blood of leukemia cells and help bone marrow function normally. The first stage of AML treatment is usually intensive but short-lasting, with the second stage given in cycles. [10]

c. CLL and ALL Chemotherapy

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia and acute lymphocytic leukemia are usually treated with chemotherapy. Medications are typically given in cycles and are followed by a rest period. There are several different chemotherapy drugs that are prescribed to treat CLL and ALL, including Rheumatrex (methotrexate). Lymphocytic leukemia therapy may also include the use of corticosteroids. [11]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.