Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Acute lymphocytic leukemia

What is acute lymphocytic leukemia?

Acute lymphocytic leukemia, referred to as ALL, is a cancer of the blood in which too many lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, are produced by the bone marrow and by organs of the lymph system.

Normally, the lymphocytes fight infection by making antibodies that attack harmful elements. But, in ALL, the cells are immature and overabundant. They crowd out other blood cells and may collect in the blood, bone marrow and lymph tissue.

Acute leukemia can occur over a short period of days to weeks. Chromosome abnormalities (extra chromosomes and structural changes in the chromosome material) are present in the majority of all patients.

ALL is more common in children than adults, with most children under the age of 10 when the cancer is found.

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What are the symptoms of acute lymphocytic leukemia?

The following are the most common symptoms of acute lymphocytic leukemia; however, each individual may experience symptoms differently:

  • Anemia
  • Bleeding
  • Bruising
  • Fever
  • Persistent weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Aches in bones and joints
  • Swollen lymph nodes

The symptoms of acute lymphocytic leukemia may resemble other blood disorders or medical problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

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How is acute lymphocytic leukemia diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for acute lymphocytic leukemia may include the following:

  • Additional blood tests and other evaluation procedures.
  • Bone marrow aspiration and/or biopsy – a procedure that involves taking a small amount of bone marrow fluid (aspiration) and/or solid bone marrow tissue (called a core biopsy), usually from the hip bones, to be examined for the number, size and maturity of blood cells and/or abnormal cells.
  • Spinal tap/lumbar puncture – a special needle is placed into the lower back, into the spinal canal (the area around the spinal cord). The pressure in the spinal canal and brain can then be measured. A small amount of cerebral spinal fluid can be removed and sent for testing to determine if there is an infection or other problems. Cerebral spinal fluid is the fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord.

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Treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia

Specific treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia will be determined by your physician based on:

  • Your age, overall health and medical history.
  • Extent of the disease.
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures or therapies.
  • Expectations for the course of the disease.
  • Your opinion or preference.

Treatment may include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Bone marrow transplantation