Children's Hospital Colorado

Leukemia and Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in Children

What are leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

Leukemia is a cancer of the bone marrow, the substance inside of bones that makes blood cells.

Lymphomas are divided into two broad categories, depending on the appearance of their cancerous (malignant) cells: These are known as Hodgkin's lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

Like Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma are cancers of lymphocytes (white blood cells). The white blood cells are an important part of the immune system and help people fight infection.

What causes leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

There are no known causes of leukemia or non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but both types of cancer are treatable and curable, usually with chemotherapy alone.

Who gets leukemia?

Leukemia can occur at any age, from infancy through adulthood; however, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is most common among 3- to 5-year-old children.

Children with certain genetic disorders, like Down syndrome, may have a higher risk for developing leukemia.

Who gets non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is more common in older children and young adults.

Helpful resources for blood cancer

What are the signs and symptoms of leukemia?

Children with leukemia typically experience bruising, bleeding, fatigue, fever and bone pain, usually for at least a few weeks.

What are the signs and symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

Lymphoma patients can also have fatigue, fever and weight loss. Most children with lymphoma find an enlarged bump or mass in their neck, abdomen or chest. Some patients will experience all of these symptoms, while others only have a few.

Usually, a child will report not feeling well in general and will have difficulty keeping up with friends and activities.

What tests are used to diagnose leukemia?

First, your child will have a blood sample taken so doctors can get a complete blood count (CBC). This test counts the numbers and type of blood cells in your child’s body.

In children with leukemia, the numbers of white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets are not normal. In some types of leukemia, all three cell types are abnormal, and in others, only one type of blood cell is affected. Sometimes, it’s possible for doctors to see the cancerous blood cells (called blasts) under a microscope and diagnose leukemia that way.

In order to understand the type of leukemia and pick the best treatment course for your child, a bone marrow aspirate and biopsy must be done to confirm the diagnosis and the type. This test is usually done while the child is sedated so they don’t feel any pain. Once the procedure is over, results are usually available within 24 hours.

What tests are needed to diagnose non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

Lymphoma is typically found first during a physical when a doctor feels a mass in or around the lymph nodes in the abdomen, neck or under the arm. Usually, your child will have an imaging study, like a CT scan or MRI, to confirm the mass.

The mass or lymph node will then be biopsied by a pediatric surgeon. During this procedure, a small amount of the mass or lymph node is removed and examined by a pathologist (a doctor who specializes in looking at cells). After this cellular examination, doctors at Children’s Hospital Colorado will be able to diagnose your child with a specific type of lymphoma, which is important for planning the most effective treatment plan.

Why choose Children’s Hospital Colorado to test for blood cancer?

At Children’s Colorado, we perform bone marrow tests under anesthesia to relieve the pain and anxiety for our patients. Our specialized pathologist can perform all the specialized testing needed for bone marrow and biopsies at the hospital, which enables us to give your child and family a diagnosis more quickly.

Read about our nationally-ranked Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders.

How are leukemia and lymphoma treated?

A bald infant wearing a pink shirt and a yellow and black beaded necklace smiles

In general, leukemia and lymphoma are treated primarily with chemotherapy (followed by radiation or a bone marrow transplant only when necessary). The good news is that children with leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma are usually cured after chemotherapy.

How does chemotherapy work?

Chemotherapy can be given in many different ways, but its job is to kill the cancer cells. At Children’s Hospital Colorado, we provide the most effective chemotherapy treatment for each child based on the unique biology of his or her leukemia and lymphoma.

As the largest center in Colorado for the treatment of pediatric leukemia and lymphoma, we have many treatment programs and therapies available for both newly diagnosed pediatric cancer patients, as well as for those whose cancer has returned. We have a large, nationally accredited bone marrow transplant program for children who may need a transplant.

In addition, our experimental therapeutics program is a leader in novel interventions and is available to our leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma patients who have not responded well to initial therapy or have relapsed.

Why choose Children’s Hospital Colorado for your child’s blood cancer?

The Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders (CCBD) has a specialized group of physicians who are national leaders in the treatment of leukemia and lymphoma. We offer leading-edge and proven treatment protocols for leukemia and lymphoma with excellent outcomes.

Read more about our Oncology Program.


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