What is acute myeloid leukemia?

Acute myeloid leukemia, also called AML, acute myelogenous leukemia and acute myelocytic leukemia, is a kind of cancer that starts from cells in your bone marrow. Bone marrow is located inside some of your bones. It's where your body produces new blood cells.

Acute myeloid leukemia starts in the cells that would otherwise become different types of blood cells. Usually, it starts in the cells that would become white blood cells, which are your infection-fighting cells, but can also start in other types of blood cells.

It often moves quickly into the bloodstream, and it can spread to other organs including the lymph nodes, spleen, liver, brain and spinal cord.

AML represents roughly 34% of all leukemia cases in the United States.

Common related conditions
Leukemia Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML) Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)

Causes of acute myeloid leukemia

Like most cancers, doctors aren’t sure why people get AML. They do know that it’s caused by cells that undergo changes and start growing quickly.

They also know that there are some behaviors, habits and other factors that increase your chances of getting it.

Risk factors of acute myeloid leukemia

You can change and control some risk factors, but not all of them. These factors include the following:

  • Smoking is the only known lifestyle choice that increases your chances of getting AML. Your lungs absorb the cancer-causing chemicals. Those chemicals also spread throughout your body through the bloodstream.
  • Exposure to chemicals, including benzene, increases your chances. This chemical is in everything from cleaning products to cigarette smoke to the exhaust from cars and trucks.
  • Previous cancer treatments, which include chemotherapy and radiation, increase your odds of getting AML.
  • Blood disorders, which include essential thrombocythemia and myelodysplastic syndrome, can put you more at risk for this disease. The risk is higher in patients who have gotten chemo or radiation as part of the treatment for their blood disorders.
  • Family history, which includes having a close relative with the disease, can increase your chances as well.

Symptoms of acute myeloid leukemia

Part of what makes AML so tricky is the mild early symptoms it causes. Early on, patients might feel like they have the flu. As the disease progresses, the symptoms do too. Signs and symptoms of AML may include:

  • Feeling like you can’t catch your breath
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Being tired all the time
  • Extreme night sweats
  • Cold feet and hands
  • Not feeling hungry
  • Balance problems
  • Swollen glands
  • Blurry vision
  • Looking pale
  • Dizziness

Diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia

Anytime you have symptoms that last longer than usual, go see your doctor. Even if you think you only have the flu it’s better to get checked out. A doctor will take your medical history. He or she can also look for signs of infection, bleeding or swelling in spots like your lymph nodes or liver.

Common tests include the following:

  • Blood tests — can check your blood cells; often, people with AML have lots of white blood cells and a lack of platelets and red blood cells.
  • Bone marrow tests — looks at the cells under a microscope.
  • Spinal taps — lets doctors look at the fluid from around your spinal cord under a microscope.

Treatments for acute myeloid leukemia

Before your doctor comes up with a treatment plan, he or she will want to confirm the type of AML you have. The subtype you have depends on how the cells look when doctors view them under a microscope.

Treatments fall into one of two phases:

  • Remission induction — kill the cancer cells in your bone marrow and blood.
  • Consolidation therapies — help keep the leukemia from coming back.

In either phase, doctors often use treatments like chemotherapy to help kill the cells and prevent them from spreading or coming back. Bone marrow transplants are sometimes used in the consolidation phase to replace diseased bone marrow with healthy new cells.

Recovery from acute myeloid leukemia

Making healthy choices and relying on a strong support network can help you get through treatment and find your way into recovery. Eating a balanced diet, getting more exercise and giving up smoking is a great start. Light exercise can make you feel better and less tired.

The five-year survival rate for patients with AML is around 27%, according to the National Cancer Institute. But it’s important to remember that your health and other factors determine how well you will respond to treatment.

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