Treatments for leukemia include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and stem cell transplants. They aim to eliminate cancer cells from the blood. Treatments may cause side effects that vary for different people.

Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, and stem cell or bone marrow transplant are common treatment options for leukemia.

Each treatment option can have side effects that vary for different people. The healthcare team will work closely with the person to manage side effects and provide supportive care throughout treatment.

This article outlines the main leukemia treatments.

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Chemotherapy is a common treatment for leukemia, particularly acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells and slow or stop their growth. People may take these drugs orally or intravenously.

Side effects

Chemotherapy for leukemia can cause various side effects, depending on the specific drugs, the dosage, and the person. Some common side effects of chemotherapy include:

Some supportive therapies, such as anti-nausea medications or growth factors to boost blood cell production, may help manage side effects and improve quality of life during chemotherapy.

Learn more about chemotherapy side effects here.

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy radiation to destroy cancer cells. Doctors can deliver radiation externally or internally, depending on the location of the cancer cells.

External radiation therapy involves delivering radiation to the cancer cells from outside the body using a linear accelerator.

Learn more about the various types of radiation therapy.

Side effects

Some common side effects of radiation therapy include:

Learn more about the side effects of radiation therapy here.

Stem cell transplantation, or bone marrow transplantation, is a treatment option for leukemia and other blood cancers. The goal of stem cell transplantation is to replace diseased or damaged stem cells with healthy ones.

There are two main types of stem cell transplantation: autologous and allogeneic.

Autologous transplantation

Autologous transplantation involves extracting a person’s stem cells from the bone marrow or blood and freezing them before a person has chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Doctors then infuse the stem cells back into the bloodstream. From there, they travel to the bone marrow and multiply, rebuilding a person’s immune system.

Allogeneic transplantation

Allogeneic transplantation involves using stem cells from a donor — often a family member but sometimes a nonrelative. Doctors transplant the donor’s stem cells into the individual after chemotherapy or radiation therapy to replace their diseased or damaged stem cells.

Learn more about being a stem cell donor.

Side effects

Some common side effects of stem cell transplantation include:

Learn more about stem cell transplants here.

Leukemia remission is when there is no evidence of the disease during treatment. In other words, it is a period when leukemia is in a state of minimal or undetectable disease activity.

However, it does not mean a complete cure, as some cancer cells may remain in the body and can cause the disease to return.

Learn about remission from acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

Refractory ALL is a type of leukemia characterized by the failure to achieve complete remission or the recurrence of the disease after initial treatment. In other words, it is a form of ALL that does not respond to standard treatment or comes back after treatment.

Refractory ALL is a more challenging form of leukemia because the cancer cells have become resistant to standard treatments. Treatment options for refractory ALL may include high dose chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, clinical trials, or palliative care to manage symptoms and improve quality of life.

A healthcare team, including hematologists and oncologists, will monitor the progress of the disease and adjust a person’s treatment plan as needed.

Learn about relapsed ALL.

If treatment does not work or leukemia returns after initial treatment, doctors call this treatment failure or relapse. This can be challenging for people with cancer, as it may limit treatment options and indicate a poorer outlook.

In treatment failure or relapse cases, a healthcare team will assess the person’s condition and determine the best course of action. In some cases, clinical trials or experimental treatments may be an option.

If the leukemia is no longer responsive to treatment or the person’s overall health is too compromised, doctors may focus on palliative care to manage symptoms, control pain, and improve the person’s quality of life.

Learn about relapsed AML.

Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. The most common treatments are chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and stem cell transplantation. Treatment aims to eliminate as many cancer cells as possible and improve a person’s quality of life.

Each treatment option has pros and cons, and doctors make recommendations based on factors such as the type and stage of leukemia, a person’s age, and overall health.

Healthcare teams try to manage side effects and provide individualized support throughout the treatment process.