Leukemia is a type of cancer in which the body produces large numbers of
abnormal (usually white) blood cells. Approximately 28,500 new cases of leukemia
are diagnosed each year. There are several types of leukemia, grouped as either
acute (the diseases progresses rapidly) or chronic (the diseases progresses
slowly). The most common leukemias are:
Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), which comprises 90 percent of all
leukemias in children (although it also occurs in adults)
Acute myelocytic leukemia (AML), which mostly occurs in
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), which mostly strikes adults over
Chronic myelocytic leukemia (CML), which mostly occurs in
Signs and Symptoms
Leukemia is often accompanied by the following signs and
Shortness of breath
What Causes It?
Most causes of leukemia are not known. However, the disease has been linked
to exposure to large amounts of high-energy radiation (from nuclear bombs),
occupational exposure to the chemical benzene, viral infections, and chemicals
Who's Most At Risk?
Leukemia is linked to the following risk factors.
Genetic diseases, such as Fanconi's anemia or Down syndrome
Acquired diseases, such as Hodgkin's disease
First-degree relative with leukemia
Excessive exposure to ionizing radiation
Chemical exposure (benzene)
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
If you or your child is experiencing symptoms associated with leukemia, see
your health care provider. He or she can help make a diagnosis and guide you in
determining which treatment or combination of therapies will work best.
Your provider will do a physical examination, checking for swelling in the
liver, the spleen, and the lymph nodes, and will order certain laboratory tests.
The bone marrow is examined to check for leukemia cells or to determine the type
of leukemia. A lumbar puncture ("spinal tap") checks for leukemia cells in the
fluid around the brain and spinal cord, and chest X rays can reveal signs of the
disease in the chest.
Some leukemias can be prevented by avoiding exposure to benzene, nicotine, or
Leukemia is an extremely complex disease. Treatment depends on the type of
leukemia, certain features of the leukemic cells, the extent of the disease, and
whether the leukemia has been treated before. Whenever possible, a patient with
leukemia should be treated at a medical center that specializes in this
Some of the drug therapies used to treat leukemia include the
Radiation therapy— the use of high energy
rays to kill cancer cells and prevent them from growing
Chemotherapy—the use of drugs to kill cancer
Bone marrow transplantation—a procedure in
which cancerous bone marrow is destroyed with high doses of anticancer drugs or
radiation, and is then replaced with healthy bone marrow.
Biological therapy—stimulates or restores
ability of the body's immune system to fight infection and disease; may also be
used to lessen side effects caused by other
Surgical and Other Procedures
Surgeries may include the following.
Bone marrow transplant
Splenectomy (removal of the
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
A comprehensive treatment plan for leukemia may include a range of
complementary and alternative therapies.
Eating the following nutrient-dense foods that are high in antioxidants may
help protect against cancer: dark berries, orange and yellow vegetables, dark
leafy greens, fresh vegetable juices containing wheatgrass, beets, romaine
lettuce, parsley, and cucumber.
Potentially beneficial nutrient supplements include those listed
Vitamin A (25,000 IU a day), vitamin E (800 IU a day), vitamin C (3 to
6 g a day), and selenium (200 to 400 mcg a day) have antioxidant activity and
may decrease side effects of chemotherapy and radiation
Vitamin D (400 to 800 IU a day) may help promote differentiation of
B-complex (50 to 100 mg a day) with additional B12 (1,200
mcg a day) and folic acid (800 mcg a day) for
The use of certain herbal remedies may support the lymphatic system, spleen,
bone marrow, and liver. Take a combination of the following herbs in equal
parts, 30 to 60 drops three times a day.
Red clover (Trifolium pratense)
Blue flag (Iris versicolor)
Yellowdock (Rumex crispus); for late-stage disease, substitute
greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) for yellowdock
Poke root (Phytolacca americana)
Tree of life (Thuja occidentalis)
Cleavers (Galium aparine)
Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) (250 to 500 mg two to three times a
Periwinkle (Vinca rosea) and autumn primrose (Colchicum
officinale). Note: these are potentially toxic herbs to consider for use
only under a supervising physician.
Herbs are generally available as dried extracts (pills, capsules, or
tablets), teas, or tinctures (alcohol extraction, unless otherwise noted). Dose
for teas is 1 heaping tsp./cup water steeped for 10 minutes (roots need 20
An experienced homeopath can prescribe a regimen for treating leukemia that
is designed especially for you. Acute remedies may be useful for relief of
symptoms associated with complications.
Chinese herbs and acupuncture may be a powerful adjunct to conventional
Repeated infections complicate most cases of leukemia. Kidney failure or
impaired function and a decreasing number of neutrophils (a type of white blood
cell) are also common complications. Treatments for leukemia can have serious
The prognosis for people with leukemia varies by the type of leukemia. ALL
patients have the best prognosis, with a 35- to 45-percent five-year survival
rate and a 40-percent long-term survival rate.
Patients with leukemia undergo extensive follow-up care, including daily
exams to check for infections and bleeding, weekly bone marrow biopsies after
chemotherapy has begun, post-remission chemotherapy, treatment for central
nervous system conditions, and monitoring of urinary
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Review Date: March 2000
Reviewed By: Participants in the review process include: Richard A. Lippin, MD, President,
The Lippin Group, Southampton, PA; R. Lynn Shumake, PD, Director, Alternative
Medicine Apothecary, Blue Mountain Apothecary & Healing Arts, University of
Maryland Medical Center, Glenwood, MD; Leonard Wisneski, MD, FACP, George
Washington University, Rockville, MD.
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of any of the information contained herein, including any injury and/or damage
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regarding dosage, precautions, warnings, interactions, and contraindications
before administering any drug, herb, or supplement discussed