Leukaemia is a cancer of the white blood cells (leukocytes) and the term Leukaemia comes from the Greek words for white and blood. Leukaemia accounts for about 30% to 40% of all childhood cancers in Singapore and throughout the world1. Leukaemia starts in the bone marrow, the spongy internal part of the bones where new blood is made, and the abnormal white blood cells then spread to the blood stream.
As white blood cells are defective in children with Leukaemia, affected children may experience increased episodes of fever and infections. These children may also be anaemic as Leukaemia affects the bone marrow's production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. The child might appear paler than usual and tire more easily.
Prior to examination of the child, a detailed medical history has to be obtained by the doctor which will include the medical history of the child's family members. A physical examination will be performed to look for signs suggestive of Leukaemia such as enlarged lymph nodes, liver or spleen. There may also be features of anaemia and thrombocytopenia (low blood platelet count). A neurological examination including examination of the eyes will also be performed and particularly for boys, the genitalia (testes) will be examined for the presence of swelling which is suggestive of Leukaemic infiltrates.
ALL, AML and chronic Leukaemia are all treated with different chemotherapy drugs. The aim is to kill all the Leukaemia cells in the body but this usually damages the neighbouring healthy cells. In recent years, new drugs that target specific parts of cancer cells have been developed. These drugs work differently from standard chemotherapy drugs and generally have different and less severe side effects.