What is Childhood & Teen Leukemia?

What is Childhood & Teen Leukemia?

Leukemia in children and teenagers is a cancer of the blood and the bone marrow, where the body makes blood cells. With leukemia, normal, healthy cells that should develop into blood cells grow abnormally and out of control. Leukemia usually affects white blood cells, which help the body fight infections. It is the most common cancer diagnosed in children and adolescents.

Types of Leukemia in Children and Teenagers


Doctors identify different types of leukemia by which kind of blood cell becomes cancer (myeloid cells or lymphoid cells) and by whether the cancer cells grow rapidly (acute) or slowly (chronic). Acute leukemia worsens quickly if it’s not treated. Most childhood leukemia is acute. Chronic leukemia progresses over a longer period of time.

The main types of childhood leukemia are:

  • Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). ALL accounts for most childhood leukemias. In fact, it is the most common childhood cancer of any kind. It begins in cells called lymphocytes, which normally develop into mature white blood cells. Up to 90% of children with ALL can be cured and go on to live healthy, productive lives.
  • Acute myeloid leukemia (AML). AML is the second most common type of leukemia. It can happen in both young children and teens. AML starts in myeloid cells, which normally develop into white blood cells that are not lymphocytes, as well as red blood cells and platelets.
  • Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). In CML, the bone marrow produces too many white blood cells, and the cells are abnormal. CML is an uncommon type of leukemia, and it may become harder to treat as it progresses.
  • Rare subtypes. Leukemia subtypes can arise from the many different blood-precursor bone marrow cells and may have unique features. One of them, juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia (JMML), is neither acute nor chronic.

Signs & Symptoms of Childhood Leukemia


Mature white blood cells in your body help fight infection. Signs and symptoms of childhood leukemia can develop when changes happen in immature white blood cells that keep them from developing normally. The cells grow and multiply uncontrollably, collect in organs throughout the body, and don’t allow normal blood cells to form.

A pediatrician can help determine whether your child’s symptoms are from leukemia or something else, and whether tests and treatment for leukemia are needed. The same symptoms appear in adults who develop leukemia.

Symptoms of leukemia in children and teenagers include:

  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Bruising or bleeding easily
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Joint pain
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Pain in the hands or feet
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

What Causes Leukemia in Children & Teens?


In most cases, there is no clear cause for leukemia in children and teenagers. However, certain genetic mutations have been associated with it. For example, in chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), cells are formed with a genetic change called the Philadelphia chromosome. Research suggests that, in general, a combination of genetic mutations and environmental exposures may lead to leukemia.

Risk Factors for Leukemia in Children & Teens

Risk Factors

A risk factor for a disease is something that increases the chances of developing it. Risk factors for childhood leukemia include:

  • Genetic syndromes, including Down syndrome (trisomy 21) and Li-Fraumeni syndrome
  • Inherited immune-system conditions, such as ataxia-telangiectasia, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, Bloom syndrome, and Shwachman-Diamond syndrome
  • Having a sibling with leukemia
  • Exposure to high levels of radiation
  • Being treated for other cancers with certain chemotherapy drugs
  • Having treatment to suppress the immune system after an organ transplant
Get Care

Choose NewYork-Presbyterian for Childhood Leukemia Care

NewYork-Presbyterian pediatric leukemia experts have extensive experience in diagnosing and treating all forms of leukemia in children and adolescents. Schedule an appointment to address leukemia symptoms in your child. Leukemia and its treatment can have various other effects on the body. At NewYork-Presbyterian, your child can access every kind of pediatric specialist available. They collaborate with our pediatric leukemia care teams to treat the whole child, not just the disease.