Chemotherapy for Leukemia

There are many different chemotherapy drugs that can treat leukemia. Sometimes, patients receive several drugs in combination in order to achieve the best results.

How do patients receive chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy drugs are typically infused into the bloodstream through an IV. In some cases, patients might receive chemotherapy as a pill or as an injection.

Chemotherapy is administered in cycles of treatment days interspersed with rest days. This allows the body to recover from the treatment.

Patients undergo chemotherapy in phases. The first phase, known as the “induction phase,” is designed to eliminate as many cancer cells as possible and put the leukemia into remission. The second phase, called the “consolidation phase,” is meant to destroy any cancer cells that might be lingering in the body. During these two phases, patients are often hospitalized so their physicians and nurses can monitor their progress and help them cope with side effects. Induction chemotherapy and consolidation chemotherapy usually last for months.

The third phase, or “maintenance chemotherapy,” is designed to lower the odds that the cancer will return. Maintenance chemotherapy can be administered in pill form. Patients may have to take these pills for as long as two years.

What are the side effects of chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy can cause a number of difficult side effects, including:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Sores in the mouth
  • Loss of hair
  • Low blood counts

A “low blood count” means that the blood doesn’t contain enough red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets. This makes patients susceptible to infections and uncontrolled bleeding. For this reason, leukemia patients are often admitted to the hospital to undergo chemotherapy, especially during the earlier cycles.

Your care team will help you manage side effects as they occur. Some patients find palliative care (or care that seeks to reduce pain and improve quality of life) to be helpful as well.