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How Effective is Chemotherapy for Leukemia?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 22, 2024
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Chemotherapy for leukemia can be a very effective treatment, depending on the kind of leukemia, the type of chemotherapy used, and other factors like the patient's age and general level of health. When patients are diagnosed with leukemia, they will be given information on treatment options and success rates, including five-year survival rates, to help them make informed decisions about their medical care. It is important to be aware that every case is slightly different, and even if statistics for a particular cancer seem grim, a patient may defy expectations.

In some forms of leukemia, initial induction chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells can evoke a response in as many as 90% of patients. Children in particular often respond very well to chemotherapy for leukemia. Followed by consolidation and maintenance chemotherapy to kill any remaining cancer cells, the success and survival rates can be very good. For children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), for example, the five-year survival rate is around 80%, while adults have a lower survival rate of around 40%.

When evaluating statistics discussing the efficacy of chemotherapy for leukemia, it is important to be aware that statisticians can define “success” in a lot of different ways. Initial responses to chemotherapy are often very good, but they are not the only numbers to examine. People should also look at the five-year rate disease-free, and should also ask about what happens to patients who relapse within five years. For some leukemias, a second round of treatment may be very successful, while in others, relapse can be an ominous sign.

Adults over the age of 60 may want to consider the side effects of chemotherapy when discussing chemotherapy for leukemia. Immediate response rates, as well as five-year survival rates, tend to be lower for older adults in general, and in some cases, chemotherapy may not be worth the trade-off in quality of life. Such patients should discuss their options carefully and may also want to consider ongoing research in the area of leukemia treatment; while the risks of relapse may be high, for example, it is possible better treatments will be available for the second round of therapy.

Chemotherapy for leukemia can be a grueling process for the patient and family. When discussing the treatment plan, it is helpful to ask about how many cycles of chemotherapy the patient will need and how long treatment will last, overall, while also discussing side effects and the management of common chemotherapy complications. Having a complete picture will help patients know what to expect and may make them feel less nervous about treatment.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Lostnfound — On Jul 07, 2014

@Grivusangel -- I sure do hate to hear about a child getting leukemia, but they do seem to be the ones who get it most often. I've heard of adults getting it, but if they do, it's usually AML, which is the worst kind to have, since it's so notoriously difficult to treat, and what works with kids doesn't necessarily work with adults.

A man in our community died about a year ago with it. He had been an all-star college football player and was an upstanding member of the community. He had AML, along with what they call the Philadelphia mutation, which makes bad matters worse. I don't know what it is, but it makes the leukemia even harder to treat.

By Grivusangel — On Jul 06, 2014

For ALL, chemotherapy is probably the treatment of choice, although some doctors also include radiation therapy in their courses of treatment. I think what stunned me is the length of treatment. A little boy in our community has ALL and the length of treatment is 2 and a half years! I had no idea it took that long. But he is in maintenance now, and is excited, because his hair will probably start growing back, and he should only have treatments about once a month or so.

He has responded very well and there is no minimal residual disease, which is what the doctors look for when planning treatment. He also achieved remission in 28 days, which is the other marker of a more hopeful prognosis.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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