Leukemia Program

The Leukemia Program at Northside Hospital Cancer Institute (NHCI) provides comprehensive, state-of-the-art facilities and treatment services for adult patients with acute and chronic leukemia, myelodysplastic syndromes, lymphoma, myeloma and other blood-related cancers.

For patients with some forms of leukemia or other blood cancers, a blood or bone marrow transplant may be part of their treatment plan. One of the many benefits of our Leukemia Program is that we offer early access and a seamless transition to our nationally recognized Blood and Marrow Transplant (BMT) Program.

What Is Leukemia?

Leukemia is a cancer of your blood cells. Blood cells are produced in your bone marrow, which is the soft interior of your bones. Normally, blood cells are made in an orderly, controlled way. When leukemia develops, blood cells do not develop normally resulting in an overproduction of immature cells, which then fill up the space in the bone marrow. As a result, normal blood cells that are responsible for fighting infections and preventing bleeding are under produced.

The term leukemia means white blood. White blood cells (leukocytes) are used by the body to fight infections and other foreign substances. Leukocytes are made in the bone marrow.

Leukemia leads to an uncontrolled increase in the number of white blood cells. The cancerous cells prevent healthy red cells, platelets, and mature white cells (leukocytes) from being made. Life-threatening symptoms can then develop as normal blood cells decline.

Leukemia is divided into two major types:

  • Acute (progresses quickly)
  • Chronic (progresses more slowly)

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Symptoms of Leukemia

There are many different types of leukemia and the symptoms vary depending on the type. Some common leukemia symptoms include:

Leukemia Risk Factors

Risk Factors

In adults, leukemia occurs most often in people older than 55. The following risk factors may play a role in the development of all types of leukemia:

  • Previous cancer treatment involving certain types of chemotherapy and radiation therapy
  • Certain genetic abnormalities and genetic disorders such as Down Syndrome
  • Exposure to certain chemicals, such as benzene — which is found in gasoline and is used by the chemical industry
  • Smoking cigarettes increases the risk of acute myelogenous leukemia
  • Family history of leukemia

Additional risk factors for developing acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) include:

  • Exposure to high levels of radiation
  • Exposure to certain chemotherapy drugs and certain chemicals, including benzene
  • Infection with the human T-cell lymphoma/leukemia virus-1 (HTLV-1)
  • Down syndrome or other genetic disorders
  • Having an identical twin who developed ALL in the first year of life

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is one of the most common types of leukemia in adults. Some additional risk factors that may lead to AML include:

  • Smoking
  • Exposure to certain chemotherapy drugs and certain chemicals, including benzene
  • Exposure to high levels of radiation
  • Certain blood disorders
  • Genetic syndromes caused by genetic mutations at birth
  • Close relative with AML

There are only a few known risk factors for developing chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) which include:

  • First degree relatives of people with CLL
  • Exposure to certain chemicals such as Agent Orange during the Vietnam War

A risk factor associated with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) is exposure to high levels of radiation.

As part of our comprehensive approach to cancer prevention and education, Northside Hospital offers Built To Quit, a smoking and tobacco cessation program offering resources to help individuals quit smoking and stop using other tobacco products. For additional information or to register for a class, please call 404-780-7653 or email smokingcessation@northside.com.

2019 Built to Quit
Class Schedule (English)
2019 Built to Quit
Class Schedule (Spanish)

Diagnosing Leukemia

Doctors may find chronic leukemia in a routine blood test, before symptoms begin. If this happens, or if you have signs or symptoms that suggest leukemia, you may undergo the following diagnostic exams:

  • Physical exam. Your doctor will look for physical signs of leukemia, such as pale skin from anemia, swelling of your lymph nodes, and enlargement of your liver and spleen.
  • Blood tests. By looking at a sample of your blood, your doctor can determine if you have abnormal levels of red or white blood cells or platelets — which may suggest leukemia.
  • Bone marrow test. Your doctor may recommend a procedure to remove a sample of bone marrow from your hipbone. The bone marrow is removed using a long, thin needle. The sample is sent to a laboratory to look for leukemia cells. Specialized tests of your leukemia cells may reveal certain characteristics that are used to determine your treatment options.

Northside Hospital Cancer Institute provides care and support for all types of leukemia:

Team of Leukemia Specialists

The strength of NHCI Leukemia Program is our leukemia specialists and clinical support staff who collaborate to provide individualized care for each patient. NHCI’s Leukemia Program offers a comprehensive scope of medical services, the latest technology, leading-edge clinical research and compassionate support.

Our physicians are among the most experienced in the country, treating more than 100 newly diagnosed leukemia patients each year. Team members are committed to providing comprehensive care in a compassionate setting.

Our leukemia team of experts includes:

  • Hematologists / Medical Oncologists
  • Hematopathologists
  • Clinical pathologists
  • Leukemia nurse coordinators
  • Clinical research nurses
  • Clinical pharmacists (PharmD)
  • Flow cytometry PhD’s

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A patient’s individualized Leukemia Treatment plan is determined after a prospective discussion among a team of leukemia specialists working together to cure the disease. Interdisciplinary team meetings are held weekly to review treatment plans and the responses to treatment for all new and current leukemia patients. This innovative meeting uses an interactive approach where hematopathologists, clinical pathologists, leukemia physicians, scientists from our flow cytometry/molecular diagnostic laboratory, advanced practice providers, health psychologist, nurses and ancillary support staff complete an in-depth review of each case.

For questions about our team of leukemia specialists, call 404-255-1930

Leukemia Treatment Options

Treatment options for our leukemia patients include both standard of care treatments or may include clinical research trials. Research is a major component of Northside’s Leukemia Program. We believe leukemia patients should have access to state-of-the-art and novel clinical research trials to ensure the best possible survival outcomes.

For patients with some forms of leukemia, a stem cell transplant may be part of their treatment plan. Northside’s Leukemia Program offers early access to treatment options and a seamless transition to our nationally recognized Blood and Marrow Transplant Program, the only adult BMT Program in Georgia to achieve survival rates that significantly exceeded the expected survival rate for allogeneic transplants for the last 10 consecutive reporting cycles (2009-2018).

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A stem cell transplant (SCT) allows doctors to use higher doses of chemotherapy (sometimes along with radiation) to kill cancer cells. After these treatments are finished, the leukemia patient receives a blood or bone marrow transplant.

For an allogeneic transplant, the donor's tissue type, or human leukocyte antigen (HLA) type, needs to match the patient’s tissue type as closely as possible. Usually this donor is a brother, sister or family member. If siblings or family members are not an acceptable HLA match, then an unrelated donor from the National Marrow Donor Program, bethematch.org, will be tested to see if an acceptable HLA match can be identified. Our Leukemia Program offers early donor identification and our leukemia coordinator works closely with patients to organize all family HLA typing to ensure access to a transplant at the earliest possible time to obtain the best survival outcomes.

Sometimes patients may not be able to have this kind of transplant if a matching donor is not available. The use of allogeneic transplant is also limited by its side effects, which are often too severe if patients are older or have other health problems.

An autologous transplant may be an option if a patient’s physician feels they cannot have an allogeneic transplant. The patient's own marrow or peripheral blood is used. There is a concern of tumor contamination of the transplant.

A syngeneic transplant is the simplest source of stem cells. Syngeneic transplants are the least complicated transplants because there is no risk of rejection, graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), or tumor in the marrow. Blood cell recovery and return of immune system functioning is prompt. The only disadvantage of syngeneic transplants is the lack of the graft versus leukemia (GVL) effect of allogeneic transplants that helps reduce tumor relapse.

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to treat cancer. The drugs travel through the bloodstream to kill the leukemia cells primarily located in your bone marrow and to reach cancer cells all over the body. Most chemotherapy drugs do not reach the area around the brain and spinal cord well, so it may need to be injected into the cerebrospinal fluid to kill cancer cells in that area. This is called intrathecal chemotherapy.

Click here to learn more about our outpatient infusion center for leukemia patients.

Immunotherapy is a treatment method that uses your own immune system to fight and kill blood cancer cells. It takes your immune cells, genetically modifying them to be better tumor-fighting cells, multiplying them to great numbers (tens of thousands), and then infusing them back into your body where they can find and attack your cancer.

Learn more about our Immunotherapy program.

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to damage or kill cancer cells and is a localized treatment used to kill leukemia cells. Radiation may be used alone, or in conjunction with other types of leukemia treatment.

Learn more about Northside's radiation therapy services

Northside offers access to state-of the-art leukemia clinical trials through Johns Hopkins Oncology Center, National Cancer Institute (NCI), and biotechnology companies. Clinical trials are studies that involve people and are a critical part of oncology research. These studies test new ways to prevent, detect, diagnose or treat cancer.

Northside's Oncology Research Program is one of the largest community-based oncology/hematology programs in the nation and maintains ongoing access to promising National Cancer Institute (NCI) and industry-sponsored clinical trials.

Search for open leukemia clinical trials at Northside.

Learn more about NHCI cancer treatment options

For questions about treatment options for leukemia patients at Northside call 404-255-1930

Blood and Marrow Transplant Program

The Blood and Marrow Transplant (BMT) Program at Northside Hospital is one of the most qualified and experienced transplant centers in the United States.

There are three main types of blood and marrow transplants:

  • Allogeneic transplant - when someone else donates the blood or stem cells.
  • Autologous transplant - when you donate your own blood or stem cells.
  • Syngeneic transplant - when a donor is an identical twin to the patient.

In 2018, Northside had among the best survival rates in the United States for the tenth consecutive year (2009-18), per data released by the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) and the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research (CIBMTR)

The BMT Program at Northside Hospital is one of the largest clinical transplant programs in the United States, serving patients undergoing bone marrow and stem cell transplant therapy and providing primary leukemia treatment options.

The BMT Program at Northside Hospital meets the criteria of “an excellent transplant center” per guidelines established by the American Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation, the Foundation for Cellular Therapy and the National Marrow Donor Program. These are the three BMT governing organizations that provide patients and family members with detailed information on how to identify an excellent transplant center through outstanding survival outcomes, experienced and highly-trained staff, comprehensive quality management program and state-of-the-art facilities.

Learn more about The Blood and Marrow Transplant (BMT) Program at Northside Hospital Cancer Institute.

For more information or to refer a patient to the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program at NHCI, please call 404-255-1930.


Read more about this incredible story.

A former leukemia and bone marrow transplant patient had the opportunity of a lifetime - to meet the woman who saved her life.


Leukemia Support & Survivorship

Ongoing support is crucial when facing leukemia. Northside Hospital Cancer Institute provides a full range of leukemia support and survivorship programs and services to address the unique needs of leukemia patients.

Leukemia treatment and recovery can be overwhelming. The Leukemia Program at Northside Hospital Cancer Institute has leukemia nurse coordinators, with extensive knowledge and training in oncology and leukemia, to help guide patients through treatment and education and help patients make informed decisions.

Our leukemia nurse coordinators work with hematopathology, clinical laboratories, pathologists, flow cytometry/molecular laboratories, referring oncologists, blood and marrow transplant coordinators for HLA typing and early donor identification, and other specialists to coordinate each patient’s treatment plan from diagnosis to remission/cure.

Support provided by leukemia nurse coordinators includes:

  • Coordination of direct admission or hospital-to-hospital transfer at time of initial diagnosis
  • Educating patients on clinical information
  • Answering questions about diagnosis, treatments and potential side effects
  • Facilitating communication between the patient and their care team
  • Coordinating with designated leukemia health psychologist and social worker to provide appropriate referrals to support groups and NHCI survivorship programs

Learn more about all of our NHCI Support & Survivorship services

For questions about support options for leukemia patients at Northside, call 404-255-1930