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Acute Myeloid Leukemia

What is acute myeloid leukemia?

Acute myeloid leukemia is also called acute myelogenous leukemia or AML. It is a fast-growing cancer of the bone marrow and blood cells. With AML, cells that should become white blood cells (WBCs) do not fully grow. These cells are called myeloblasts and monoblasts. They do not fight infection like a normal WBC should. They crowd the bone marrow and prevent normal blood cells from growing and fighting infection.

What causes AML?

The exact cause of AML is not known. However, you may be at higher risk for AML if:

  • You have certain changes in your DNA.

  • You have had a bone marrow disease in the past.

  • You have been exposed to high amounts of radiation, or have taken medicines such as chemotherapy.

  • You have been exposed to chemicals such as pesticides or benzene (in tobacco, some paints and glues).

  • You are over 60 years old.

What are the signs and symptoms of AML?

  • Tiredness and weakness that does not go away

  • Pale skin that bruises and bleeds easily

  • Fever or infections, such as cold or flu, do not get better or keep coming back

  • Painful bones or joints

  • Stomach pain and discomfort

  • Headaches, confusion, and vision problems

  • Loss of appetite or losing weight without trying

  • Shortness of breath when you exercise

How is AML diagnosed?

  • Blood tests: You will need blood tests to count the number of each type of blood cell (RBCs, WBCs, platelets).

  • Bone marrow biopsy: During this procedure, a small amount of bone marrow is taken from the bone in your hip. This test helps caregivers find out which type of leukemia you have.

  • Other tests: You may need other tests such as a lumbar puncture (spinal tap), x-rays, CT scan, or MRI.

How is AML treated?

You may have treatment in phases. In the first phase (induction phase), caregivers will give you treatments to make your AML go into remission. Remission means there are no longer any signs of leukemia. After you are in remission, you will receive the next phase of treatment called post-remission treatment. The goal of this phase it to kill any hidden leukemia cells and help you stay in remission.

  • Chemotherapy: This medicine is also called chemo. It is used to kill cancer cells. During induction, your caregiver may give you two or more kinds of chemotherapy.

  • Bone marrow or stem cell transplant: This may be part of your post-remission treatment. During this procedure, bone marrow or stem cells are put in your blood through an IV. The stem cells should go to your bone marrow and begin to make new blood cells.

What are the risks of AML?

  • Treatment for AML has many risks. Some common side effects of chemotherapy are nausea, vomiting, and increased infections. Chemotherapy may kill cancer cells very quickly and lead to kidney, heart, or nervous system damage. You could have a bad reaction to a bone marrow transplant or stem cell transplant. You could have a bad reaction to a blood transfusion, such as a seizure or death.

  • If you have a type of AML called acute promyelocytic (M3) leukemia, you may have a side effect from your medicine called retinoic acid syndrome. This syndrome can lead to trouble breathing, increased body fluid, and kidney damage. You may be at greater risk for a blood clot in your leg or arm. This can cause pain and swelling, and it can stop blood from flowing where it needs to go in your body. The blood clot can break loose and travel to your lungs or brain. A blood clot in your lungs can cause chest pain and trouble breathing. A blood clot in your brain can cause a stroke. These problems can be life-threatening.

  • Treatment of AML may be slow to work, or may not work at all. AML may not go away or it may return, but with treatment your chances of controlling AML are better. If you do not have treatment, or the treatment does not work, you could die.

Where can I find support and more information?

  • American Cancer Society
    250 Williams Street
    Atlanta , GA 30303
    Phone: 1- 800 - 227-2345
    Web Address:
  • National Cancer Institute
    6116 Executive Boulevard, Suite 300
    Bethesda , MD 20892-8322
    Phone: 1- 800 - 422-6237
    Web Address:
  • The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Inc.
    1311 Mamaroneck Avenue
    White Plains , NY 10605
    Phone: 1- 914 - 949-5213
    Phone: 1- 800 - 955-4572
    Web Address:

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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