Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)

What is Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)?

Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is a rapidly progressing cancer of the bone marrow and blood. It is the most common form of childhood cancer, but it can also strike adults.

The exact cause of acute lymphocytic leukemia and other forms of leukemia are largely unknown, but the risk increases when exposed to certain chemicals and radiation. Those with Epstein-Barr virus, human T lymphotropic virus 1, Fanconi’s syndrome, Down syndrome and other specific hereditary diseases and genetic disorders are at greater risk.

Immature cancerous red blood cells (lymphoblasts) form and collect in the bone marrow. When left untreated they continue destroying and replacing healthy cells. The cancerous cells travel to the lymph nodes, liver, brain, spleen and male testes where they continue multiplying and damaging vital organs and other areas of the body.

What are the Symptoms of Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia?

There are many signs and types of acute lymphocytic leukemia symptoms.

Signs of acute lymphocytic leukemia can include:
  • Painful bones
  • Frequent bleeding (nose and/or gums)
  • Bruising
  • Heavy sweating
  • Paleness
  • Chronic infections
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Breathing difficulties

The condition is diagnosed through blood tests, bone marrow tests, imaging and a spinal tap.

 Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia Causes

A direct cause of acute lymphocytic leukemia is currently unknown. However, some factors have been identified which can increase the risk of developing the disease. Two main causes are exposure to radiation, including increased exposure to radiation from the sun through air travel, and exposure to high levels of benzene, a chemical found in cigarette smoke, crude oil, and petroleum.

Acute lymphocytic leukemia has also been linked to genetic disorders, such as Down’s syndrome or Fanconi’s anemia, in some cases. Some viral infections, such as Epstein-Barr virus, may also cause an increased risk for acute lymphocytic leukemia. Research has also indicated that men are more at risk than women, and African-Americans more than Caucasians. The risk is highest in young children, particularly those younger than five.

While these various risk factors can contribute to an individual’s risk of developing acute lymphocytic leukemia, at this time research has not been able to identify definitive causes of the disease. As research progresses, other risk factors may be identified, as well as more definitive causes.

How is Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia Treated?

The treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia usually begins with chemotherapy. The goal is to destroy cancerous cells to make way for healthy ones.

Treatment may also include:
  • Targeted drug therapy
  • Radiation
  • Stem cell transplant (allogenic transplant)

Aggressive two to three-year treatment plan is usually necessary. The cure rate for children over two years of age is considerably higher than that of adults. Approximately 80% of children and up to 40% of adults are completely cured of the disease.

Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia Prevention

Unfortunately, there seems to be little that can be done to prevent acute lymphocytic leukemia, as many of the risk factors are beyond our control. Avoiding exposure to high levels of radiation and dangerous chemicals can potentially reduce risk, but other factors such as race or genetic disorders cannot be altered.

As with many cancers, the overall consensus seems to be that there is no way to definitively prevent acute lymphocytic leukemia. However, the disease is curable, and there is an 85% five-year survival rate in children younger than 19. While this rate is lower in older age brackets, new methods of treatment are also leading to potentially increased survival rates in adults who have been diagnosed.

As additional information is discovered about the causes of acute lymphocytic leukemia, information on effective prevention of the disease can likewise be refined.

Last Reviewed:
September 11, 2016
Last Updated:
April 06, 2019