What to Expect When Your Child is Diagnosed With Leukemia

smiling boy with mom

As a parent, no one can prepare you to hear that your child has been diagnosed with cancer. In the words of the mother of a Children’s National patient, “Probably the only thing that could possibly be worse than a cancer diagnosis for yourself is hearing these words about your child.” Every year, our physicians and staff work with nearly 200 patients and families fighting leukemia and lymphoma. Treatment is a long and challenging process, but it is one that is highly effective and our team is here to support you throughout this process.

Diagnosis

Leukemia is the most common form of pediatric cancer, affecting approximately 3,250 children each year. Thanks to incredible developments in modern medical practice, most of those children (nearly 90%) make a full recovery and live a healthy life. But no matter how sophisticated the treatment, or how high the success rates, it is a terrifying experience to learn that your child has been diagnosed with this disease. Most parents are overwhelmed when they hear the diagnosis. That’s why we make it our goal to prepare you for what lies ahead, and to build a trusting and compassionate bond with every one of our patients and their families. There are different types of Leukemia, and each child’s experience will vary considerably based on the treatment that makes the most sense for him or her.

Treatment

Treatment for leukemia is divided into a few major phases. While the names and details of these phases depend on the type of leukemia your child has, the general structure is the same for most forms of the disease.

The early phases of therapy are generally intensive chemotherapy, and are followed by a long period of low-intensity therapy called maintenance (or continuation) that is all outpatient and mostly oral (by mouth) chemotherapy.

Induction is the first phase of treatment when we begin your child’s chemotherapy. During induction, your child will stay at the main hospital. At this phase, the therapy is quite rigorous to get rid of the cancer in your child’s body. Health complications, such as fevers, infections, kidney damage, and sometimes pain, are typical reactions to the therapy.

Many parents are often concerned that their child appears sicker during this phase than he or she seemed before therapy. This is normal. In fact, it is expected. Think of your child’s cancer like a weed in a garden. The weeds prevent healthy plants from growing, and when you first pull up the weeds, your garden will look empty. But in time, new healthy plants will grow. It is normal for your child’s health to appear to worsen before it gets better.

After the induction phase, the treatment gets less intense and involves a number of medications that can be given either in clinic or orally (by mouth) at home. There is a chance that complications like a fever or infection will require your child to be readmitted to the hospital. While we try to care for those complications in an outpatient setting, it is not uncommon for patients to require hospitalization. The experts on our oncology team are in constant communication regarding your child’s treatment, no matter where you are receiving care. It is our goal to provide seamless transitions between inpatient (hospital) and outpatient (clinic) care when it is necessary for your child’s treatment.

Medications

Your child will be given multiple medicines, many with long and complicated names. Some of the medications given to your child are chemotherapy while others are supportive medications to treat side effects or complications of treatment. Our team will provide you with all the information that you need to know about the medications, including dose and time instructions, all compiled in a care binder that you will receive upon leaving the hospital.

We Are Here to Help

We know that this is a difficult time for your family. It is our goal to make it as easy for you as we can. We are available to answer your questions at any hour of the day or night. Patients can reach our nurse coordinator at 202-476-4450.

Various resources, including education and support services, are available through the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders.

Joey's Story

Joey's Story

When Joey was 10-years-old, he was sent to Children's National and diagnosed with leukemia. Today, Joey is 16-years-old and cancer-free. He is enjoying his junior year of high school and playing baseball.

Read More of Joey's Story