Leukemia is a blood cancer that begins in the bone marrow. It’s the most common type of cancer in children. Supported by the research of internationally renowned physician-scientists, the multidisciplinary team at Penn State Children’s Hospital diagnoses and treats children with all forms.
Care at Children's
We offer comprehensive, family-centered, state-of-the-art treatment and support for leukemia patients and their families, beginning with diagnosis and education.
The most common symptoms that children with acute leukemia present with include leg pain, difficulty walking, or bruising, and abnormal complete blood count (CBC) results. If a patient has these findings, then further testing is needed to determine if the patient has acute leukemia.
When a patient comes in for the first time, we examine him or her and look over the CBC results. If acute leukemia is suspected, we usually admit the patient to the hospital so we can run special tests to confirm the diagnosis.
The diagnosis process includes:
- Test of the bone marrow cells to identify the different types of cells in the bone marrow and the different molecules on the cell’s surface. This information will help to tell us if it’s acute leukemia, and, if so, if it’s ALL or AML. During this procedure, the doctor inserts a needle into the patient’s back hip bone. The patient may be sedated.
- DNA tests are performed on the bone marrow cells to determine if there is a mutation in the patient’s cells, which helps us to further classify the type of acute leukemia. This “risk stratification and classification” allows us to tailor the treatment regimen to the patient’s exact condition and helps us create a plan with the highest chances of success.
- Lumbar puncture is performed to determine if there is leukemia in the spinal fluid. The results from this test will help us to determine if any adjustments to the treatment plan will be needed. During the procedure, the doctor inserts a needle between the patient’s vertebrae and removes a sample of spinal fluid. The patient is sedated during the procedure.
We take the time to thoroughly explain test results to families. Because a cancer diagnosis can be an overwhelming and emotional experience, we make sure that they know their child’s treatment options, including opportunities to participate in clinical trials.
Researchers at the Children’s Hospital are focused on learning how pediatric cancer treatment can be as effective as possible while minimizing its long-term side effects. The data collected from our clinical trials and research studies - and that of our collaborators - enables us to provide robust treatment that’s tailored to each individual patient.
Treatments vary according to cancer subtype and patient condition, and may include:
- Chemotherapy, cancer-fighting drugs taken intravenously, intratheacally, topically, and by mouth
- Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy waves to destroy cancer cells
Typically, patients with ALL are treated for a couple of years, and patients with AML are treated for less than a year.
Acute leukemia patients and their families receive comprehensive, state-of-the-art treatment and family-centered support. Child Life specialists are available to help patients and their family members cope with their diagnosis and adjust to the unfamiliar hospital environment. Social workers assist families with a variety of issues, from insurance to lodging to transportation. Other services include clinical psychologists, music therapists, chaplains, and nutritionists.
Acute leukemia care involves multidisciplinary care from many departments, including:
- Radiation Oncology
Our pediatric clinic is located at:
Penn State Children's Hospital - Outpatient Clinic
200 Campus Drive, Entrance 4, Suite 1100
Hershey, PA 17033
Groups, Classes & Support
Support groups provide an opportunity to share your feelings and connect with other parents and caregivers who are experiencing similar struggles.
Learn more about pediatric support groups offered at Penn State Children’s Hospital.
Research & Clinical Trials
Research in the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology is conducted by internationally renowned physician-scientists.
As a member of the Children's Oncology Group - the world’s largest organization devoted exclusively to childhood and adolescent cancer research - we collaborate with researchers around the world who are devoted to improving outcomes for children with cancer. This means our patients have access to the most advanced clinical trials available for many types of childhood cancer, including leukemia.
We also participate in other research collaborations, including the Neuroblastoma and Medulloblastoma Translational Research Consortium (NMTRC) and the Pediatric Oncology Experimental Therapeutics Investigators' Consortium (POETIC).
Our Pediatric Oncology experimental therapeutics program, called Experimental Therapeutics Research and Clinical Team (ExTRaCT), focuses on early-phase clinical studies for very high-risk and relapsed patients. Its mission is to identify approaches to increase the cure rate and reduce side effects of cancer treatment for children. Our providers have extensive experience monitoring children who are undergoing experimental treatment. To inquire about current early phase clinical trials, please contact Suzanne Treadway, clinical nurse specialist, at 717-531-3097.
Pediatric oncology research projects are funded by the National Institutes of Health and various philanthropic organizations. A major supporter is Four Diamonds, which covers the financial costs of medical care - including traveling and lodging - for all Pennsylvania childhood cancer patients and their families being treated at our Children’s Hospital.
Symptoms, Diagnosis & OutlookLeukemia, or cancer of the blood, is the most common childhood cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, about 2,700 children are diagnosed with leukemia in the United States each year. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, also known as ALL, is the most common form of leukemia that occurs in children.
Signs and symptoms of leukemia may include:
- Abnormal paleness
- Weight loss
- Shortness of breath
- Easy bruising
- Repeated infections
- Bone pain
- Abdominal pain
- Skin irritations or rashes
Causes & Risk Factors
Most causes of leukemia are not known. Several genetic and environmental factors can be associated with childhood leukemia. The disease has also been linked to exposure to large amounts of high energy radiation (from nuclear bombs), occupational exposure to the chemical benzene, viral infections, and chemicals from cigarettes.
Leukemia is linked to the following risk factors:
- Males are at greater risk than females
- Increasing age
- 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)
- Certain drugs
- Chromosomal abnormalities
Exams & Diagnostic Tests
What to Expect at Your Doctor's Office
If you or your child has symptoms associated with leukemia, see your child's doctor. Your child's doctor can make a diagnosis and help you determine which treatment or combination of therapies will work best.
Your child's doctor 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 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. Chest x-rays can reveal signs of the disease in the chest.