Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia
About the condition
Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, or ALL, occurs when the genetic material of cells in the bone marrow become damaged or changed, producing mutations that affect normal cell growth and division. The abnormal cells then replicate, causing cancer. If undetected, the cancer can spread beyond the bone marrow and move to other parts of the body.
Around 8,600 people are diagnosed with leukaemia each year in the UK. Despite being uncommon overall, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is the most common type of cancer to affect children. Approximately one in every 2,000 children will develop it. About 85% of cases occur in children aged under 15, mostly between the ages of two and five years old.
The cause or causes of acute leukaemia are uncertain, but known risk factors include exposure to high levels of radiation, genetic disorders such as Down’s Syndrome, being obese or having a weakened immune system.
Symptoms of ALL usually begin slowly before rapidly getting severe as the number of blast cells (immature white blood cells) in your blood increases. Most of the symptoms are caused by the lack of healthy blood cells in your blood supply.
Symptoms of ALL include:
- pale skin
- feeling tired and breathless
- having repeated infections over a short space of time
- unusual and frequent bleeding, such as bleeding gums or nose bleeds
- swollen lymph nodes (glands)
- abdominal pain – caused by a swollen liver or spleen
- unexplained weight loss
- a purple skin rash (purpura).
In some cases of ALL, the affected cells can spread from your bloodstream into your central nervous system. This can cause a series of neurological symptoms. If any of these symptoms apply to you, or if you have any concerns about similar symptoms, it is essential that you see your doctor at once, as your chances of recovery are much higher if your cancer is diagnosed early.
If you’re referred to CCL for diagnosis, your consultant or oncologist will advise you on which tests are relevant to your individual symptoms. There are a number of different tests for ALL, including:
- A blood test, to check for a high number of abnormal white blood cells in the sample, which could indicate the presence of acute leukaemia
- A bone marrow biopsy, during which a haematologist will take a small sample of bone marrow to examine under a microscope. This involves inserting a needle into a large bone, usually the hip bone, to extract the marrow, and is done under local anaesthetic
- A Computerised Tomography (CT) scan, which shows a 3D image of the area being looked at
- An X-ray, which is when low level radiation is used to create an image of the body
- A lumbar puncture, where a needle is used to extract a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (fluid that surrounds and protects your spine) from your back. The fluid is tested to determine whether leukaemia has reached your nervous system, and this test is carried out using local anaesthetic.
At CCL, patients with ALL are treated by a specialist multidisciplinary team. This team works together to create a treatment plan to suit the individual needs of the patient. Treatment for ALL usually begins a few days after diagnosis, and is carried out in the following stages:
- induction – the aim of the initial stage of treatment is to kill the leukaemia cells in your bone marrow, restore the balance of cells in your blood and resolve any symptoms you may have
- consolidation – this stage aims to kill any remaining leukaemia cells in your central nervous system
- maintenance – the final stage involves taking regular doses of chemotherapy tablets to prevent the leukaemia returning
At CCL we provide support that caters to both the physical and emotional needs of the patient, before, during and after treatment.
We offer a wide range of services for patients, as well as their loved ones, designed to make a very difficult time as easy as possible, and to give our patients the best treatment and support possible. Our support services include counselling, group sessions and much more. You can find the full range of our support services here. We’ll be with you every step of the way.
If you have any questions about ALL or would like to book an appointment with one of our ALL specialists, complete this form online or call 020 8247 3351.
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia Consultants