Forms of treatment vary depending on the type of leukaemia.

Chemotherapy

Treatment using anticancer drugs. Chemotherapy acts on all the body's cells and is carried round the body by the blood stream. It is sometimes known as cytotoxic therapy because it is poisonous to all the cells whether or not they are cancerous. Medical staff should explain exactly what the side effects might be. Chemotherapy can cause hair loss but this is usually temporary.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy is localised treatment. It kills cancer cells in the area of the body being treated and is therefore effective treatment for localised disease, particularly in lymphoma and multiple myeloma. Side effects will vary according to the type of treatment.

Bone marrow and Stem Cell transplantation

Bone marrow transplantation is the replacement of a patient's own bone marrow with that provided by a suitable donor. Bone marrow / stem cell transplantation has an important role to play in the treatment of some leukaemias since it allows the use of intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy that would otherwise leave the marrow permanently damaged. Every year thousands of people with leukaemia reach a stage when only a bone marrow/stem cell transplant can save them.

Until recently bone marrow had been the only source of stem cells for transplantation. New techniques include obtaining stem cells from the peripheral blood and the use of stem cells from the umbilical cord of a new born baby.

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are immature cells that can become either:

  • red blood cells (which carry oxygen),
  • white blood cells (which fight infection) or
  • platelets (which help to stop bleeding).

What is Bone Marrow?

Bone marrow is the flexible tissue found in the hollow interior of bones. Bone marrow is a rich source of stem cells, but stem cells can also be found in our circulating blood (also known as peripheral blood) and umbilical cord blood. Donors may be asked to donate either stem cells from bone marrow or peripheral blood depending on which product the patient requires.

What is a stem cell transplant?

In a stem cell transplant, a patient's diseased marrow is replaced with healthy stem cells from a donor. To prepare for the transplant, the recipient is usually given high doses of radiation and/or chemotherapy to destroy the diseased marrow. At this point, stripped of the ability to manufacture life-giving blood cells, the recipient is extremely vulnerable. They will not survive unless the donor proceeds with the donation. Once the healthy stem cells are collected from the donor, it is given intravenously to the recipient as soon as possible.

What diseases are treated with stem cell transplants?

A variety of diseases and disorders are treated with stem cell transplants including blood-related diseases such as leukaemia, aplastic anaemia and inherited immune system and metabolic disorders.

What kinds of donors are needed?

Patients need a donor who is of the same ethnic or racial background. But, Statistics show that less than three per cent of the total number of donors are from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Tragically, most adults and children from diverse backgrounds cannot get the life-saving bone marrow transplant they need because there is no match for them in the registry. More donors from diverse backgrounds are desperately needed.

The more people on the register who are willing to donate increases the chance of a suitable match being found.