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Leukemia Treatment

As one of the world's leading leukemia programs, MD Anderson's Leukemia Center brings together internationally renowned physicians with a specialized support team to customize your care. These highly experienced experts communicate and collaborate often, ensuring you receive comprehensive care.

The Leukemia Center offers a full range of the latest and most-advanced treatment options, including new approaches and investigational agents that may increase your chance for successful treatment. More than 150 clinical trials for leukemia, many not found at any other cancer centers, are available. These trials offer innovative treatments including targeted therapies, vaccines and stem cell transplants.

If you are diagnosed with leukemia, your doctor will discuss the best options to treat it. This depends on several factors, including the type of leukemia, your age and your general health.

Your treatment for leukemia will be customized to your particular needs. One or more of the following therapies may be recommended to treat the cancer or help relieve symptoms.


Your treatment may consist of more than one chemotherapy drug or biological therapy. The short-term goal is a complete remission, which means the bone marrow has less than 5% blasts, the absolute neutrophil count is more than 1,000 and the platelet count is more than 100,000. The long-term goal is for an extended disease-free state and cure.

A course or cycle is the period of time from the start of chemotherapy until the blood and bone marrow cell counts are back to normal or you are able to receive further treatment. In some cases, leukemia cells are destroyed only in the blood and not in the bone marrow during the first course of chemotherapy. In these cases, a second course may be needed. If the leukemia does not respond to one or two courses of treatment, or if a relapse occurs, a different drug program may be used to attempt to bring about a remission.

A specific treatment plan is called a protocol. Each protocol is usually named by letters with each letter standing for a particular drug. A protocol may be considered standard or experimental therapy. Your doctor will discuss with you the advantages and disadvantages of a particular type of therapy.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is used with chemotherapy for some kinds of leukemia. Radiation therapy for leukemia patients may be directed to:

  • A specific area of the body where there is a collection of leukemia cells, such as the spleen or testicles
  • The entire body. This is called total-body irradiation and usually is given before a stem cell transplant

Biological Therapy

Biological therapies help the immune system fight cancer, infections and other diseases. They include growth factors, interleukins and monoclonal antibodies. Biological therapies may be given alone or with chemotherapy.

Targeted Therapies

MD Anderson is leading into the future of leukemia treatment by developing innovative targeted therapies. These agents are specially designed to treat each cancer's specific genetic/molecular profile to help your body fight the disease. Many of the doctors who treat leukemia at MD Anderson are dedicated researchers who have pioneered and actively lead national and international clinical trials with novel targeted agents.


Sometimes a splenectomy, or surgical removal of the spleen, is needed. The spleen is located on the left side of in the abdomen and acts as a filtration system for blood cells. In chronic leukemia, the spleen tends to collect leukemia cells, transfused platelets and red blood cells. Frequently, the spleen enlarges from storing these cells, making it difficult for chemotherapy to reduce diseased cells. If the spleen is not removed, it sometimes grows so large that it causes breathing difficulty and compresses other organs.

Stem Cell Transplantation

Stem cell transplantation (SCT), which used to be called bone marrow transplant, destroys leukemic bone marrow cells using high doses of chemotherapy and in some cases, radiation therapy. Because high-dose chemotherapy severely damages the bone marrow's ability to produce cells, healthy stem cells then are given intravenously to stimulate new bone marrow growth.

Like other leukemia treatments, SCT is highly individualized. Your care will be planned specifically for you, considering such factors as type of leukemia, past response to chemotherapy, availability of stem cells for replacement, your age and the status of the leukemia.

Clinical Trials

MD Anderson patients have access to clinical trials offering promising new treatments that cannot be found anywhere else.

Knowledge Center

Find the latest news and information about leukemia in our Knowledge Center, including blog posts, articles, videos, news releases and more.


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Prevention and Screening

Many cancers can be prevented with lifestyle changes and regular screening.