The treatment you receive for your leukemia depends on many factors, including your age, overall health, the type of leukemia you have, and whether it has spread to other parts of your body.
Chemotherapy is the most common form of treatment for leukemia. Chemotherapy drugs are given through an injection in the vein or in pill form. Treatment consists of cycles, where days of treatment are followed by days of rest to allow the body to recover. The length of time for treatment can range from six months to indefinitely. Children may receive higher doses of chemotherapy drugs than adults because their bodies usually tolerate it better. Chemotherapy may also be used to prepare for a stem cell transplant (also called a bone marrow transplant).
Radiation therapy uses focused beams of energy to target and kill cancer. Doctors carefully plan treatments to pinpoint the location of the cancer and reduce harm to nearby healthy tissue. Radiation can be effective if cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the brain, spinal cord, or testicles. Radiation therapy may be used to prepare for a stem cell transplant (also called a bone marrow transplant).
Targeted therapies use drugs that focus on a specific feature of leukemia cells. It works by blocking the leukemia cells' ability to multiply and divide. Since it targets only cancer cells, it is less likely to harm normal cells. Your leukemia cells will be tested to see if targeted therapy may work for you.
These drugs help your immune system fight off cancer. Immunotherapy treatments include antibodies, drugs that help your body develop antibodies, or drugs that block cancer cells from multiplying.
CAR T-cell therapy
A specialized type of immunotherapy called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy takes your body's germ-fighting T-cells, engineers them to fight cancer, and infuses them back into your body. CAR T-cell therapy is often used in adults whose cancer doesn't respond to treatment or returns. In some instances, it has left patients cancer-free for years after treatment. CAR T-cell therapy is not right for all leukemias, and is only available to children through clinical trials.
Stem cell transplants
Stem cell transplants (also called bone marrow transplants) are used to replace stem cells when the bone marrow has been destroyed by disease, chemotherapy, or radiation. Depending on where the stem cells come from, the transplant procedure may be called a bone marrow transplant, a peripheral blood stem cell transplant, or a cord blood transplant.
Watch and wait
Some types of chronic lymphocytic leukemia do not require immediate treatment. Patients that feel well, have no or mild symptoms, and whose blood cell counts are only slightly abnormal can be regularly monitored by their doctor for months or years until the illness changes and treatment is considered necessary. This is called "watch and wait," "active surveillance," or "watchful waiting."
Evidence shows treating the disease in the early stages doesn’t offer any benefit to the patient. This approach also spares patients from unwanted effects of treatment, with some even avoiding treatment altogether.
Clinical trials available at some medical centers may give eligible patients access to promising treatments not widely available. For more information on clinical trials, visit our Clinical Trials webpage.