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Because there are several types of leukemia, treatment is not standard across the board. When oncologists take evidence-based best practices and adapt them to a patient’s unique needs, it often results in a better outcome and quality of life. However, if you’ve been diagnosed with leukemia and are getting ready to start treatment, the general information below can help you prepare.

"Watchful waiting" may be an option.

People who have certain types of chronic leukemia may not need treatment right away. Routine tests can be performed to continually monitor the progress of the cancer. Treatment may be recommended if symptoms develop or the cancer starts to change. This can help patients avoid unpleasant side effects if treatment is not immediately necessary.

Surgery has a limited role in treatment.

Leukemia affects the bone marrow, meaning that cancerous cells are often spread throughout the entire body. As a result, surgery is not typically used in leukemia treatment. Radiation therapy also plays a more limited role than it does in the treatment of other cancers, although it may be provided before a stem cell transplant or to destroy cancerous cells in the bones or brain. Systemic treatments that affect the whole body (e.g., chemotherapy, immunotherapy and targeted therapy) are used to treat leukemia on a more frequent basis.

Many patients are able to achieve complete or partial remission.

While the outcomes can be different for each type of leukemia, treatment on the whole can be very effective. For example, up to 90 percent of adults who have acute lymphocytic leukemia achieve complete remission.

Maintenance therapy can help reduce the likelihood of a recurrence.

Once an initial course of treatment is complete, oncologists may recommend maintenance therapy, which typically involves low-dose medications. Depending on a patient’s specific diagnosis, this phase may last for up to two years.

Even if the cancer doesn’t respond to initial treatment, there may still be options.

Leukemia that doesn’t go away after a first round of treatment is called refractory leukemia. There are several medications that are specifically recommended for use in these situations. A stem cell transplant might be considered as well. Some patients with refractory leukemia also choose to enroll in a clinical trial to access novel therapies that aren’t yet offered in other settings.

To learn more about leukemia treatment, you can consult with the expert oncologists in Moffitt Cancer Center’s Malignant Hematology Program. Call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online to request an appointment; no referral is required.