What outcome can I expect if I have a diagnosis of leukemia?

While this seems like a straight-forward question, the answer is a little more complicated. It’s understandable that you want to know if you or your loved one will survive a diagnosis of leukemia. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to make general predictions. There are many factors to consider that affect your chance of recovery, including:

  • Chromosomal abnormalities or mutations. The genetic alterations seen inside of leukemia cells are the most important predictor of outcome.
  • Age. Generally, the younger the patient is at the time of diagnosis, the better the outcome.
  • Patient’s general health. The better the overall health, the better the outcome.
  • Type of blood cell/subtype of leukemia involved.
  • Red blood cell, white blood cell and platelet blood counts at time of diagnosis.
  • Response to initial treatment: Is the leukemia in remission? Has the leukemia been treated before and has now come back? Did the leukemia not respond to treatment?
  • Collection of leukemia cells in areas not easily reached by chemotherapy. This is the case when the leukemia cells are found in the spinal fluid.

The general good news is that although the number of new cases of leukemia in the United States has remained relatively steady or slightly increased since the 1970s, survival rate has also improved.

The National Cancer Institute reports the following survival data for the four main types of leukemia:

Types of LeukemiaALLAMLCLLCML
5- year survival rate*68.60%28.30%85.10%69.20%
Number of deaths per 100,000 persons0.42.81.20.3
Death is highest among those aged65-7465+75+75+

Table legend:

ALL = acute lymphocytic leukemia; AML = acute myelogenous leukemia; CLL = chronic lymphocytic leukemia; CML = chronic myelogenous leukemia
* survival compares patients diagnosed with cancer vs people of same age, race and sex who are cancer free.
Data source: SEER Cancer Statistics Review, 1975-2016, National Cancer Institute. Bethesda, MD.

It’s important to keep in mind that treatment results and long-term outcome vary for each patient.

Can leukemia be cured?

From a scientific standpoint, “cured” is a hopeful goal, yet is somewhat difficult to define in the field of cancer. Are you “cured” after five years of being free of cancer? After 10 years? Does cure mean that you no longer have any negative effects on the quality of your life from your treatment?

Cancer researchers usually are more comfortable talking about achieving long-term remission if you have a diagnosis of cancer. Children and teens, younger adults, people in good health with few other illnesses generally have the best outcomes. Acute lymphoid leukemia represents one of the most dramatic success stories in cancer treatment. According to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, nearly 90% of children and 40% of adults diagnosed with ALL can expect a long-term remission.

The answer to “am I cured of my leukemia” will best be answered by your healthcare team over a long period of time. Your team will work closely with you to develop the best treatment plan for your specific type of leukemia and will carefully follow you for many years to come.

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