In general, treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia falls into separate phases:
- Induction therapy. The purpose of the first phase of treatment is to kill most of the leukemia cells in the blood and bone marrow and to restore normal blood cell production.
- Consolidation therapy. Also called post-remission therapy, this phase of treatment is aimed at destroying any remaining leukemia in the body, such as in the brain or spinal cord.
- Maintenance therapy. The third phase of treatment prevents leukemia cells from regrowing. The treatments used in this stage are often given at much lower doses over a long period of time, often years.
- Preventive treatment to the spinal cord. During each phase of therapy, people with acute lymphocytic leukemia may receive additional treatment to kill leukemia cells located in the central nervous system. In this type of treatment, chemotherapy drugs are often injected directly into the fluid that covers the spinal cord.
Depending on your situation, the phases of treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia can span two to three years.
Treatments may include:
- Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy, which uses drugs to kill cancer cells, is typically used as an induction therapy for children and adults with acute lymphocytic leukemia. Chemotherapy drugs can also be used in the consolidation and maintenance phases.
Targeted drug therapy. Targeted drugs attack specific abnormalities present in cancer cells that help them grow and thrive.
A certain abnormality called the Philadelphia chromosome is found in some people with acute lymphocytic leukemia. For these people, targeted drugs may be used to attack cells that contain that abnormality.
Targeted drugs include imatinib (Gleevec), dasatinib (Sprycel), nilotinib (Tasigna) and blinatumomab (Blincyto). These drugs are approved only for people with the Philadelphia chromosome-positive form of ALL and can be taken during or after chemotherapy.
- Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses high-powered beams, such as X-rays, to kill cancer cells. If the cancer cells have spread to the central nervous system, your doctor may recommend radiation therapy.
Stem cell transplant. A stem cell transplant may be used as consolidation therapy in people at high risk of relapse or for treating relapse when it occurs. This procedure allows someone with leukemia to re-establish healthy stem cells by replacing leukemic bone marrow with leukemia-free marrow from a healthy person.
A stem cell transplant begins with high doses of chemotherapy or radiation to destroy any leukemia-producing bone marrow. The marrow is then replaced by bone marrow from a compatible donor (allogeneic transplant).
- Clinical trials. Clinical trials are experiments to test new cancer treatments and new ways of using existing treatments. While clinical trials give you or your child a chance to try the latest cancer treatment, treatment benefits and risks may be uncertain. Discuss the benefits and risks of clinical trials with your doctor.
ALL in older adults
Older adults, such as those older than 60, tend to experience more complications from ALL treatments. And older adults generally have a worse prognosis than children who are treated for ALL.
Discuss your options with your doctor. Based on your overall health and your goals and preferences, you may decide to undergo treatment for your ALL.
Some people may choose to forgo treatment for the cancer, instead focusing on treatments that improve their symptoms and help them make the most of the time they have remaining.
Sept. 11, 2015
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- Blincyto (prescribing information). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Amgen Inc.; 2014. http://www.blincyto.com/?WT.srch=1. Accessed March 17, 2015.