Is acute leukemia curable?

Anthony L. Komaroff, MD
Internal Medicine
Yes, acute leukemia can be cured. Not everyone will be cured, but the percent of people who are is getting higher all the time.

Leukemia is cancer of the white blood cells. The disease usually affects one of the two major types of white blood cells: lymphocytes and granulocytes. These cells circulate throughout the body to help the immune system fight off viruses, infections, and other invading organisms.

Leukemias that start in cells that normally become lymphocytes are called lymphocytic leukemias. Those from early granulocytes are called myelogenous leukemias.

The cure rates depend upon 1) which of the two types of white cells are cancerous and 2) the age of the person with leukemia.

People of all ages get both types of acute leukemia, lymphocytic and myelogenous. However, the cure rates are significantly greater in children and adolescents. As patients get older, the likelihood of being cured goes down.

A cure means that every last leukemia cell is eliminated from the patient's body. Treating acute leukemia always requires intensive chemotherapy, and often radiation therapy. Some patients need a bone marrow transplant.

Acute lymphocytic leukemia tends to be more common in children and adolescents. Acute myelogenous leukemia is more common in adults.

In contrast to acute leukemia, chronic leukemias linger in the body. Cure is unlikely. However, they grow slowly and patients can live for longer periods of time.

People with chronic lymphocytic leukemia may not need any treatment when they are first diagnosed. When treatment is needed, it is usually less aggressive and easier on the body. The goal is to control the number of cancerous white blood cells, not to eliminate every last cancerous cell.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.