Standard Treatments

Unlike other types of cancer, leukemia isn't a tumor that your doctor can surgically remove. Leukemia cells are produced in the bone marrow and travel throughout the body.

The Goal of Treatment

The goal of treatment for leukemia is to destroy the leukemia cells and allow normal cells to form in the bone marrow. Depending on the type and extent of the disease, patients may have chemotherapy, biological therapy, radiation therapy, or stem cell transplantation. Some patients receive a combination of treatments.

Treatment depends on a number of factors, including the type of leukemia, the patient's age and general health, whether leukemia cells are present in the fluid around the brain or spinal cord, and whether the leukemia has been treated before. It also may depend on certain features of the leukemia cells and the patient's symptoms.

Acute Leukemia or Chronic Leukemia?

If a person has acute leukemia, they will need treatment right away. The purpose of treatment is to stop the rapid growth of leukemia cells and to bring about remission, meaning the cancer is under control. In many cases, a person will continue treatment after signs and symptoms disappear to prevent the disease from coming back. Some people with acute leukemia can be cured.

Learn more about treatments for acute myeloid leukemia.

Learn more about treatments for chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

Chronic leukemia may not need to be treated until symptoms appear. Treatment can often control the disease and its symptoms.

Types of Treatments

Some, but not all, forms of treatment for leukemia include

  • chemotherapy
  • biological therapy
  • radiation therapy.


Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. This a common treatment for some types of leukemia. Chemotherapy may be taken by mouth in pill form, by injection directly into a vein, or through a catheter. If leukemia cells are found in the fluid around the brain or spinal cord, the doctor may inject drugs directly into the fluid to ensure that the drugs reach the leukemia cells in the brain.

Biological Therapy

Biological therapy uses special substances that improve the body's natural defenses against cancer. Some patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia receive monoclonal antibodies, which are man-made proteins that can identify leukemia cells. Monoclonal antibodies bind to the cells and assist the body in killing them.

Although monoclonal antibodies are being used to treat leukemia, researchers are studying more innovative ways to use them in treatment. Some antibodies are used alone to try to prompt the immune system to attack leukemia cells. Other antibodies are attached to substances that can deliver poison to cancer cells. These modified antibodies, called immunotoxins, deliver the toxins directly to the cancer cells. Lately, precision medicine trials have shown evidence that single targeted therapies taken in pill form can prolong survival.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays to destroy cancer cells. A machine outside the body directs high-energy beams at the spleen, the brain, or other parts of the body where leukemia cells have collected. Radiation therapy is used primarily to control disease in bones that are at risk of fracture or at sites that are causing pain.