In clones of the CEM human acute lymphoblastic leukemic cell line, glucocorticoids, oxysterols and activators of the cAMP pathway acting synergistically with glucocorticoids, each can cause apoptotic cell death. Morphologically and kinetically, these deaths resemble one another. The kinetics are striking: in each case, after addition of the lethal compound(s), an interval of approximately 24 h follows, during which cell growth continues unabated. During this "prodromal" period, removal of the apoptotic agent leaves the cells fully viable. We hypothesize that a sequence of biochemical events occurs during the prodrome which eventually results in the triggering of the full apoptotic response as evidenced by the activation of caspases and DNA fragmentation. At some point, the process is irreversible and proceeds relatively rapidly to cell death. Suppression of c-Myc seems a universal early event evoked by each of these lethal compounds or combinations, and we conclude that the negative regulation of this proto-oncogene is an important aspect of the critical pre-apoptotic events in these cells.