The goal of treatment for leukemia is to destroy the leukemia cells and allow normal cells to form in your bone marrow. Treatment decisions are based on the type and subtype of leukemia you have, its stage, and your age and general health.
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Treatment for acute leukemia
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to fight cancer It is the usual treatment for acute leukemia. For most people, that means receiving drugs in three stages:
Induction. The goal of this stage is remission. Remission is a period in which the leukemia cells have been destroyed and are replaced with healthy cells. Induction is done with high doses of powerful drugs which may be given over a period of time from about a week to a month, depending on the type of leukemia. Then it takes several weeks for your body to start growing new blood cells. You probably will stay in the hospital during this time. This can take a month or longer.
Consolidation. Even when tests show no leukemia cells can be found, there may still be some left. The goal of consolidation is to kill any cells that are left. Consolidation often involves the same drugs given in the induction stage, but the schedule and doses may be different. For example, you may receive the drugs in one or two 5-day cycles spread over 1 to 3 months.
Maintenance. The goal of this stage is to prevent leukemia cells from growing back. During maintenance you are given lower doses of drugs over the course of 2 to 3 years. If your type of leukemia has a high risk of coming back (relapse), this stage might include a stem cell transplant. The maintenance stage is not used for all types of leukemia, but is a common part of treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
Some types of acute leukemia spread to the brain and spinal cord. Regular chemotherapy cannot reach those areas, because your body puts up a special barrier to protect them. A different way of giving chemotherapy, called intrathecal chemotherapy, treats these areas by injecting the drugs directly into your spinal canal to attack any leukemia cells there. Radiation is also used to treat acute leukemia that has spread to the brain and spinal cord.
Stem cell transplant is often used as an initial treatment for people with high-risk acute leukemia. Most stem cell transplants for leukemia are allogeneic, meaning the stem cells are donated by someone else. The goal of a transplant is to destroy all the cells in your bone marrow, including the leukemia cells, and replace them with new, normal cells.
Treatment if acute leukemia gets worse
Sometimes leukemia gets worse in spite of treatments. Sometimes it gets better, or “goes into remission.” Sometimes it comes back, or “relapses.” Even when that happens, there are several treatments that may help to cure the leukemia or help you live longer:
Clinical trials. People who have leukemia may enter a research program when they first start treatment or if the leukemia is not getting better. These programs test new ways to treat the disease.
Stem cell transplant. Donated cells from a “matched” donor can rebuild your supply of normal blood cells and your immune system. (A matched donor is usually a family member. But many people have family members whose stem cells are not a close enough match.) Stem cells can be from bone marrow, from the bloodstream, or from umbilical cord blood. If you have a matched donor, drugs and radiation are used to destroy the cells in your bone marrow and make room for donated cells. If you have a relapse after a transplant, a transfusion of more of your donor’s white blood cells may put you back into remission.
Drugs. Sometimes different drugs or different doses than those that were used during your initial chemotherapy can help.
Repeating the induction stage. Sometimes the same drugs that put leukemia into remission in the first place will work again.
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