Exciting new research around childhood leukaemia

Published on Wednesday, 04 July 2018
Last updated on Thursday, 09 July 2020

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Leukaemia is the most common cancer in children, and although the majority of youngsters recover well after treatment, it would be wonderful if there was a way to avoid this disease altogether.

The good news is that research coming out of Britain has uncovered the likely cause of the most common childhood leukaemia. So let's look at this cancer in more detail and see how parents can help to prevent it.

What is childhood leukaemia?

There are different types of childhood leukaemia, but the most common for children is 'acute lymphoblastic leukaemia' (ALL) which is most prevalent in ages two to four and more commonly diagnosed in boys.

This type of cancer affects immature white blood cells in the bone marrow. They become malignant and multiply – crowding out the bone marrow, inhibiting normal blood cell production and then spilling into the child's bloodstream.

What are some symptoms of this childhood leukaemia?

ALL is a fast-developing cancer, and according to the Leukaemia Foundation children are usually unwell for a matter of days or weeks before being diagnosed.

In terms of symptoms, here are some signs that may point towards childhood leukaemia:

  • Anaemia: A lack of energy, tiredness and fatigue, pale skin, weakness, dizziness or an unusual shortness of breath when exercising
  • Bleeding or bruising easily: Children with ALL may have frequent/severe nosebleeds, bleeding gums or have flat, pinpoint red or purple spots caused by bleeding under the skin
  • Frequent or repeated infections: These could present as a fever, sore throat/mouth, chest infection or cuts and grazes that take a long time to heal
  • Bone and/or joint pain
  • Other symptoms: Children with leukaemia might also have swollen glands, chest pain or abdominal discomfort

Keep in mind, though, that these symptoms are shared by other illnesses, like viral infections. The Leukaemia Foundation says that 'most children with these symptoms don’t have leukaemia,' but if you are worried about unusual or ongoing symptoms in your child, then it's important to see a doctor.

What happens if your child gets acute lymphoblastic leukaemia?

Because ALL develops quickly, it needs to be treated quickly. Chemotherapy is the main treatment given to children, and the total treatment time is just over two years for girls and just over three years for boys.

Fortunately, the Leukaemia Foundation says that although about 180 Australian children get this cancer each year, 'these days, almost all children treated for ALL will achieve a remission from their disease and most will be cured.'

Of course, even with a good outcome, cancer diagnosis and treatment takes a physical and emotional toll on families. And because prevention is better than a cure, let's examine the interesting new research around how ALL can be avoided.

What causes acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and how can it be prevented?

According to a ground breaking study by Professor Mel Greaves at the Institute of Cancer Research, ALL is both triggered by infection and prevented by it as well.

How so? Professor Greaves says that ALL occurs in a small percentage of children who are biologically predisposed to the disease (due to a genetic mutation in the womb) and then exposed to infection without a 'properly primed' immune system.

By extension, Professor Greaves believes that ALL can be prevented by 'training' children's immune systems 'with simple and safe interventions [that] expose infants to a variety of common and harmless bugs.'

Professor Greaves says that 'most cases of childhood leukaemia are likely to be preventable' with this approach, and encourages parents to prime their child's immune system by:

  • Breastfeeding for three to six months
  • Giving their child safe bacteria such as a yoghurt drink
  • Not being over-zealous about their child's hygiene
  • Encouraging their child to mix with other children at day care, and especially with older kids

Although some further research is required, this is a great step forward in preventing childhood cancer – and a good reason for youngsters to drink breast milk, eat yoghurt and socialise with other kids.

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