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Acute Myeloid Leukemia

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML)

  • Is a cancer of the bone marrow and the blood
  • Progresses rapidly without treatment
  • Affects mostly cells that aren't fully developed- these cells can't carry out their normal functions
  • Can be a difficult disease to treat. Researchers are studying new approaches to AML therapy in clinical trials.

Click here to access AML statistics.  

What You Should Know

  • It's important to speak to your doctor about the best treatment option for you.  
  • For some patients, AML is curable with current therapies.
  • Researchers are studying new approaches to therapy in clinical trials.
  • Hematologists and oncologists are specialists who treat people who have AML or other types of blood cancer.

What You Should Do

  • Seek treatment in a cancer center where doctors are experienced in treating patients with acute leukemia.
  • Talk with your doctor about
    • Your diagnostic tests
    • What the test results mean
    • All your treatment options
    • The results you can expect from treatment.

To download lists of suggested questions to ask your healthcare providers, click here.

How Does AML Develop?

The DNA (genetic material) of a developing stem cell in the bone marrow is damaged. This is called an “acquired mutation.”

  • Stem cells form blood cells (red cells, white cells and platelets).

This damaged cell becomes a leukemic cell and multiplies into billions of cells called leukemic blasts.

  • Leukemic blasts
    • Do not function normally
    • Block the production of normal cells
    • Grow and survive better than normal cells

As a result, the number of healthy blood cells (red cells, white cells and platelets) is usually lower than normal.

  • Anemia is a condition when there is a low number of red cells in the blood which can cause fatigue and shortness of breath.
  • Neutropenia is a condition when there is a low number of white cells so that the immune system can't effectively guard against infection due to a lack of neutrophils (a type of white cell).
  • Thrombocytopenia is a condition when there is a low number of platelets which can cause bleeding and easy bruising with no apparent cause.
  • Low numbers of all three blood cell counts is called pancytopenia.

Risk Factors

There is no known cause for most cases of AML. For most people who have AML, there are no obvious reasons (risk factors) why they developed the disease. You cannot catch AML from someone else.

Researchers have identified potential risk factors, including:

  • Repeated exposure to the chemical benzene, which damages the DNA of normal marrow cells. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, half of the total national personal exposure to benzene comes from cigarette smoke even though petroleum products contribute to the majority of benzene in the atmosphere. Benzene is also found in certain industrial settings; however, the strict regulation of its use has decreased benzene exposure in the workplace.
  • Certain genetic disorders such as Down syndrome, neurofibromatosis type 1, Bloom syndrome, Trisomy 8, Fanconi anemia,  Klinefelter syndrome, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, Kostmann syndrome and Shwachman-Diamond syndrome.
  • Past chemotherapy or radiation treatments for other cancers.
  • Progression of other blood cancers or disorders, polycythemia vera, primary myelofibrosis, essential thrombocythemia and myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS).

Source: Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Reviewed by Olatoyosi Odenike, MD.