Chemotherapy for leukemia

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on May 26, 2022.

Chemotherapy for leukemia often consists of giving several drugs together in a set regimen. Because each medication destroys tumor cells in different ways, a combination of drugs may make the cells more vulnerable to treatment.

For patients with leukemia, chemotherapy is typically given orally, usually in pill form or intravenously (directly into the vein). In some cases, chemotherapy drugs may be delivered intrathecally, directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, which surrounds the brain and spinal cord. This procedure is designed to target cancer cells that have spread there. It is delivered either through a lumbar puncture (also called a spinal tap), or through a special device placed under the scalp.

For many of our patients, we place a port (central venous access catheter) to deliver chemotherapy, give intravenous fluids and obtain blood samples. This helps to reduce the discomfort of multiple needle pricks.

Throughout your chemotherapy leukemia treatment, your care team will perform regular blood tests and other diagnostic tests to check for leukemia cells and make modifications to your treatment as needed.

A common chemotherapy treatment for acute leukemias begins with induction chemotherapy, followed by intensification, or consolidation, chemotherapy. In induction chemotherapy, a combination of drugs is used to destroy as many leukemia cells as possible and bring blood counts to normal. Then, intensification chemotherapy is intended to destroy remaining leukemia cells that cannot be seen in the blood or bone marrow. Some patients may also receive maintenance chemotherapy. This less intensive course of chemotherapy is used to reduce the risk of the disease recurring after treatment has finished.

While chemotherapy destroys rapidly dividing cancer cells, it may also affect normal fast-growing cells, such as those in the hair, mouth, GI tract and bone marrow. Chemotherapy for leukemia may also temporarily interfere with the ability of the bone marrow to produce adequate numbers of blood cells. Depending on the drugs used and your individual response, you may experience side effects of chemotherapy. Your care team may recommend a combination of approaches to prevent or manage chemotherapy-related side effects throughout leukemia chemotherapy treatment.

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