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Get Ahead Kids - Vol. 5, No. 3 - May/June 2013

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By Dr. Huda Al Haddad

Leukaemia is the most common type of cancer in children and teenagers. It involves your white blood cells, so before talking more about leukaemia, let's take a closer look at the bone marrow where the cells are made.

The Bone Marrow

Your bone marrow is found inside your bones.

It's where all your blood cells are made, like:

  • Red blood cells, which carry oxygen to every part of your body
  • White blood cells, which fight germs and protect you from infection
  • Platelets, which plug cuts to stop bleeding

The different blood cells all work hard to keep you healthy. Eventually they get worn out and need to be replaced.

To replace the worn out cells, a healthy cell copies itself by splitting and then growing.

You then have two healthy blood cells instead of one old one.

This is what normally happens.

What Goes Wrong in Leukaemia?

In leukaemia, the white blood cells behave badly and start splitting out of control.

The cells build up and up in your bone marrow, making it very crowded. They take up so much space that they sometimes make your bones ache.

The white blood cells can't do their usual job of fighting germs either, which means you get more infections.

The badly behaved cells also get in the way of your red blood cells and platelets, which means they are unable to do their jobs properly too.

This can make you feel weak and short of breath. You may also notice that cuts heal more slowly, and that you bruise more easily.

When there's no more room in the bone marrow, the white blood cells sometimes spill out into the bloodstream and spread to other parts of your body, causing trouble there too, like making your tummy swollen, or giving you swollen glands or headaches.

How Does the Doctor Recognise Leukaemia?

Feeling tired, bruising easily and getting lots of infections are just some of the clues that make your doctor think you might have leukaemia.

To know for sure, the doctors will do some tests, like a blood test. They will also remove some white blood cells from your bone marrow for a closer look under the microscope.

If they think the cells are causing trouble in other parts of your body too, they might also take a small amount of fluid from your back, or do scans of your tummy.

Why Do Kids Get Leukaemia?

Nobody knows for sure why some kids get leukaemia. What we do know is that it's nobody's fault, and it's not from anything you did or didn't do. Leukaemia is a serious illness, but most kids are cured once they have their treatment.

What Is the Treatment?

As leukaemia can cause havoc all round your body, it's really important to treat it as soon as possible.

For this, you need strong medicines called chemotherapy. They work by destroying cells that split very quickly, so they're really good at getting rid of the white blood cells causing the problems.

You might have to take a lot of medicines. Some of these can make you feel unwell for a while, but they are very good at getting you better as quickly as possible.

Sometimes other treatment is needed too, like radiotherapy or a bone marrow transplant. Your doctors and nurses will explain all about these.

Sometimes you might need to stay in hospital for your treatment, so you may feel lonely and miss your family and friends.

Even when you have finished your treatment, you'll still need regular check-ups to make sure your white blood cells don't start causing problems again.

It's scary to be told that you have leukaemia, but you're not alone. There are many other children and teenagers going through the same thing as you.

Sometimes it can really help to tell someone, like your family, friends or teachers, how you feel, so that they can understand what it's like for you and help you along the way.

About Dr. Huda Al Haddad

Dr. Huda Al Haddad is a member of the medical writing team at Medikidz, an organisation that provides children and teenagers with informative, accessible and fun comic books to help them understand both health and illness.

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