Leukemia refers to a group of blood cancers that affect your bone marrow, as well as your red and white blood cells. It’s considered the most common childhood cancer. In fact, the American Cancer Society (ACS) says that about 1 in 3 cases of cancer in children are leukemia.

However, chronic forms of leukemia in children are considered rare.

Acute lymphoblastic/lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is the most common form seen in children, per the ACS. It has a high cure rate. Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is another — though less common — subtype of leukemia in children.

As with any cancer, an early diagnosis and prompt treatment for childhood leukemia is crucial to preventing its spread. Learn more about the survival rates for this type of cancer, as well as risk factors to consider.

Childhood leukemiaWith ALL With AML
5-year survival rates90%65–70%

While leukemia remains the second leading cause of cancer-related death in children, treatment advances have increased the overall survival rates.

In fact, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), overall childhood cancer mortality rates have decreased by 50 percent between 1975 and 2010.

When considering outlook, researchers refer to what’s known as a 5-year survival rate. This refers to an average percentage of people who are still alive 5 years after they’re first diagnosed.

Keep in mind that a 5-year survival rate is not an exact predictor of any child’s cancer journey.

Infants and toddlers

Leukemia is considered rare in infants; one clinical review estimated an incidence of about 160 U.S. cases per year. The average 5-year survival rate for infants with AML is 60 to 70 percent, per the NCI. The rates go up slightly with children over age 1 year, as discussed in the next section.

However, despite its rarity, infant leukemia tends to be more aggressive, and requires intense treatment. Infants may enter remission, but cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, may lead to adverse long-term effects.

Children

According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS), the average 5-year survival rate for ALL, the most common type of leukemia in children, is 94.4 percent for those under age 5. There’s a slight drop to 92.5 percent for older children under age 15.

AML is a less common leukemia in children. It also has a lower 5-year survival rate of 70.6 percent for all children under age 15.

Adolescents

The survival rate for ALL in older children has also improved over the last several decades. According to the NCI, adolescents 15 to 19 years old have an average 5-year survival rate of at least 75 percent. The survival rate for AML in the same age group is 57 percent.

While childhood leukemia isn’t necessarily preventable, there are a few known risk factors you may wish to discuss with your doctor. Consider the following:

Age

There’s a peak in childhood ALL cases in ages 2 to 3 years. The NCI reports an incidence of at least 90 cases per 1 million each year, with such cases being four-fold compared to infants and children above age 10. At the same time, ALL rates significantly drop at around age 8.

Prenatal exposure to X-rays

One reason why ultrasounds are used instead of X-rays during pregnancy is to reduce an unborn baby’s exposure to radiation. Prenatal exposure to X-rays is another possible risk factor for childhood ALL — especially during the first few months of fetal development.

In some cases, an X-ray may be medically necessary. Talk with your doctor about all your imaging options, especially if you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant.

Exposure to high doses of radiation

Postnatal exposure to radiation may also increase your child’s risk for ALL and AML. Such high doses of radiation are often therapeutic in nature and may be used for thymus enlargement, tinea capitis, and other conditions.

Genetic conditions

Certain genetic conditions are also associated with both ALL and AML in children. According to the NCI, these may include:

Family history

While there appears to be no correlation between both parents and children having ALL, having a sibling with this cancer could increase your risk.

With AML, there appears to be a higher risk in children who have either a sibling or a parent with a history of this type of leukemia.

The risk in siblings may be higher in twins for all childhood leukemias, at 20 percent, per the ACS. The risk may be higher if the cancer develops during the first year of life.

Certain blood disorders

According to the ACS, the following blood disorders may increase the risk of developing AML:

  • essential thrombocythemia
  • idiopathic myelofibrosis
  • myelodysplastic syndrome
  • polycythemia vera

Factors that may affect childhood leukemia survival rates include:

  • subtype, with ALL having a better prognosis than AML
  • initial white blood cell reports — counts that exceed 50,000 are signs of a higher risk case
  • age at the time of diagnosis, with those ages 1 to 9 having higher cure rates
  • treatment response
  • changes to chromosomes, which are genetic structures made of DNA and proteins

For ALL

The 5-year survival rates estimated for different age groups doesn’t take the possibility for relapse into account. However, the NCI estimates that 98 percent of children with ALL do achieve cancer remission.

Additionally, the ACS reports that children who enter remission after 1 to 2 weeks of chemotherapy for ALL tend to have better outcomes.

For AML

According to the NCI, between 50 and 60 percent of children with recurrent AML relapse within the first year, with most facing relapse by 4 years after diagnosis.

It’s important to discuss your child’s individual case with their cancer specialist (also known as an oncologist), including the possible risks of treatment toxicity.

While the outlook for childhood leukemia is much more promising than in years past, it’s important to find support as a caregiver to help you navigate the process. This may come in the form of:

Overall, the survival rate for childhood leukemia has significantly increased in recent decades. This is attributed to both early detection and advanced treatments that aim to reduce long-term toxicity.

It’s important to talk with your child’s oncologist about their individual situation. You may also wish to discuss prognostic risk factors, such as age and genetic conditions, as well as the chances of remission and relapse.