Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia

What is acute lymphoblastic leukaemia?

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is a form of leukaemia, a cancer which affects the bone marrow and the white blood cells. Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia affects a type of white blood cells, known as lymphocytes. It is most common in children under the age of 15 but it can also affect adults.

What causes Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia?

Leukaemia affects white cell production. In Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia too many immature lymphocyte cells, known as lymphoblasts, are produced and these cells fill the bone marrow and prevent it from producing red blood cells and platelets in the normal way.

Types of Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

There are different types of Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia which are categorised according to the type of cancerous lymphocyte (either B-lymphocyte or T-lymphocyte):

  • Early (precursor) B-lymphoblastic leukaemia – most common among adults
  • Mature B-lymphoblastic leukaemia (also known as Burkitt-type Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia)
  • Early (precursor) T-lymphoblastic leukaemia

Symptoms of Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

  • Looking pale – this is often associated with anaemia
  • Feeling tired and lethargic
  • Joint and muscle aches and pains
  • Generally feeling unwell
  • Being prone to infection – due to a lack of healthy white blood cells
  • Abnormal bleeding and bruising – due to a lack of platelets

The symptoms of Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia may develop very quickly and it is advisable to see a doctor as soon as possible, with early treatment having a huge impact on survival rates.

Diagnosing Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

The diagnostic process usually starts with seeing your GP, who will carry out a blood test. If the results are abnormal they will contact you to arrange further tests, which will be conducted in hospital.

At the hospital doctors will carry out a physical examination and take another blood sample – if the sample contains leukaemia cells, they will take a biopsy of bone marrow tissue. The procedure involves taking a small sample of bone marrow from the chest bone or the pelvis.

A haematologist will examine the sample to check for abnormal blood cells, and from this will be able to identify the type of leukaemia, according to the type of abnormal white blood cell. Further tests will be carried out to confirm diagnosis and treatment will begin.

Treatment for Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

Treatment for Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia usually involves a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which is provided by a multi-disciplinary team.

What is the outlook for people with Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia?

The outlook for children with Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is positive: around 85 percent of children will be cured. The outlook for adults is not as good, with only 40 percent commonly being cured. However, 80 percent will go into remission and will not experience any symptoms. Early diagnosis is essential due to the rapid advancement of the condition.

Living with Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

Leukaemia affects blood cell production and it can make you feel tired and lethargic, as well as making you vulnerable to infections and illnesses. There are also practical and emotional factors that need to be considered. When you are diagnosed a team of professionals will look after all aspects of your care. They will also be able to help you deal with the emotional stress of living with cancer.

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