Most patients with leukemia receive chemotherapy. This type of cancer treatment uses drugs to kill leukemia cells. Depending on the type of leukemia and the patient, the patient may receive a single drug or a combination of two or more drugs.
People with leukemia may receive chemotherapy in several different ways:
- By mouth
- By injection directly into a vein (IV or intravenous)
- Through a catheter (a thin, flexible tube) placed in a large vein, often in the upper chest – a catheter that stays in place is useful for patients who need many IV treatments. The health care professional injects drugs into the catheter, rather than directly into a vein. This method avoids the need for many injections, which can cause discomfort and injure the veins and skin.
- By injection directly into the cerebrospinal fluid – if the pathologist finds leukemia cells in the fluid that fills the spaces in and around the brain and spinal cord, the doctor may order intrathecal chemotherapy. The doctor injects drugs directly into the cerebrospinal fluid. This method is used because drugs given by IV injection or taken by mouth often do not reach cells in the brain and spinal cord.
- Injection into the spine: The doctor injects the drugs into the lower part of the spinal column
- Ommaya reservoir: Children and some adult patients receive intrathecal chemotherapy through a special catheter called an Ommaya reservoir. The doctor places the catheter under the scalp. The doctor injects the anticancer drugs into the catheter. This method avoids the discomfort of injections into the spine.
People with some types of leukemia have biological therapy. This type of treatment improves the body’s natural defenses against cancer. The therapy is given by injection into a vein. For some patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, the type of biological therapy used is a monoclonal antibody. This substance binds to the leukemia cells. This therapy enables the immune system to kill leukemia cells in the blood and bone marrow. For some patients with chronic myeloid leukemia, the biological therapy is a natural substance called interferon. This substance can slow the growth of leukemia cells.
Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill leukemia cells. For most patients, a large machine directs radiation at the spleen, the brain, or other parts of the body where leukemia cells have collected. Some patients receive radiation that is directed to the whole body.