Modern therapies improve survival rate for acute lymphoblastic leukemia
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Republished online as originally printed in the Post-Gazette Aug. 26, 1997.
Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in children under the age of 15 (behind accidents).
The most common form of cancer is Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, or ALL. Last year, 1,750 children throughout the country were diagnosed with that form of cancer, which affects the lymphoid cells.
Overall, the survival rate for children with cancer is 78 percent. Because of new, aggressive treatments, the death rate dropped 40 percent from 1973 to 1989.
Those with ALL have a higher chance of survival now, said Children's Hospital oncologist Dr. Jeffrey Hord - 85 to 95 percent.
The possible causes are the subject of controversy. Those being studied, according to the Leukemia Research Fund, include, a rare reaction to an infectious agent, exposure to radiation, chemicals or electromagnetic fields from powerlines or substations and genetic factors.
Symptoms are excessive fatigue, breathlessness, pains in bones and joints, bleeding, excessive bruising and infections.
Boys are more likely to get the disease - 1.2 males to 1 female. ?The incidence rate is two times greater among Caucasians than African-Americans.
Survival statistics show that children between the ages of 2 and 10 also have a better chance of being cured.
As occurred this past month with Alex Myers, almost all children go into remission after their initial treatment.
But the drugs that kill the leukemia cells also kill growing, healthy cells - such as the hair roots, skin cells and the gut's lining.
Hord said Alex likely will lose his hair within the next couple weeks. He already is taking a drug to alleviate digestive problems. Steroids he is taking have made him ravenous, yet the chemotherapy drugs create a metallic taste in his mouth.
For those reasons, Alex is perpetually hungry, but his tastes have changed. No longer does he like fruit or vegetables. He craves pizza and steak. ?Other side effects he may feel are constipation, allergic reactions, high blood sugar (diabetes) and facial puffiness.
Alex went into remission on Aug. 15, meaning that drugs had killed off all but less than 1 percent of the leukemic cells in his body.
He is not cured, nor is he out of danger.
On Friday, doctors will take a sample of Alex's bone marrow to check his white blood count levels. A sample is taken from a bone in his hip. Doctors give him morphine and other drugs to numb the pain of the procedure.
If leukemic cells are more than 5 percent, his drug therapy will be intensified. Radiation may be added to the treatment if cancer cells are found in his spinal fluid.
Even though he is in remission, he continues to get a series of different levels of chemotherapy to avoid a relapse, which could mean the need for a bone marrow transplant.
For more information on where parents can go for help, call:
• American Cancer Society patient services, (412) 261-4352.
• Leukemia Society of America, Western Pennsylvania chapter, (412) 263-2873.
• The Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation, 412-344-9823 or (800) 366-2223
• Burger King Cancer Caring Center, (412) 622-1212.
• Leukaemia Research Fund web page, www.leukaemia.demon.co.uk/index.htm.
First Published June 17, 2009 12:00 am