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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.

While the cause of AML is unknown, several factors are associated with an increased risk of developing AML, including:

  • Age: The risk of developing AML increases with age. 
  • Sex: Males are more likely than females to develop AML. 
  • Exposure to dangerous chemicals: Long-term exposure to high levels of certain chemicals, such as benzene, is linked to a greater risk of AML. 
  • Smoking: AML is linked to exposure to tobacco smoke, which contains benzene and other cancer-causing agents. 
  • Previous cancer treatment: People who received radiation therapy or chemotherapy have an increased risk of developing AML, called "treatment-related" or "therapy-related" AML. 
  • Exposure to very high doses of radiation: People exposed to very high levels of radiation are at increased risk of developing AML (for example, survivors of an atomic bomb blast or a nuclear reactor accident).
  • Other blood cancers: Certain blood disorders, such as myeloproliferative neoplasms or myelodysplastic syndromes, can evolve over time into AML. 
  • Genetic disorders: Genetic disorders present at birth that seem to increase the risk of AML include Down syndrome, neurofibromatosis type 1, Bloom syndrome, Trisomy 8, Fanconi anemia,  Klinefelter syndrome, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, Kostmann syndrome and Shwachman-Diamond syndrome.
  • Familial risk/germline predisposition: Certain gene mutations present at birth may increase the risk of developing AML. 

Source: Acute Myeloid Leukemia in Adults. Reviewed by Eunice S. Wang, MD.