General Information About Adult Acute Myeloid Leukemia
Key Points for This Section
- Adult acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes abnormal myeloblasts (a type of white blood cell), red blood cells, or platelets.
- There are different subtypes of AML.
- Smoking, previous chemotherapy treatment, and exposure to radiation may affect the risk of adult AML.
- Possible signs of adult AML include fever, feeling tired, and easy bruising or bleeding.
- Tests that examine the blood and bone marrow are used to detect (find) and diagnose adult AML.
- Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
Adult acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. This type of cancer usually gets worse quickly if it is not treated. It is the most common type of acute leukemia in adults. AML is also called acute myelogenous leukemia, acute myeloblastic leukemia, acute granulocytic leukemia, and acute nonlymphocytic leukemia.
Normally, the bone marrow makes blood stem cells (immature cells) that become mature blood cells over time. A blood stem cell may become a myeloid stem cell or a lymphoid stem cell. A lymphoid stem cell becomes a white blood cell.
A myeloid stem cell becomes one of three types of mature blood cells:
- Red blood cells that carry oxygen and other substances to all tissues of the body.
- White blood cells that fight infection and disease.
- Platelets that form blood clots to stop bleeding.
In AML, the myeloid stem cells usually become a type of immature white blood cell called myeloblasts (or myeloid blasts). The myeloblasts in AML are abnormal and do not become healthy white blood cells. Sometimes in AML, too many stem cells become abnormal red blood cells or platelets. These abnormal white blood cells, red blood cells, or platelets are also called leukemia cells or blasts. Leukemia cells can build up in the bone marrow and blood so there is less room for healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. When this happens, infection, anemia, or easy bleeding may occur. The leukemia cells can spread outside the blood to other parts of the body, including the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), skin, and gums.
This summary is about adult AML. See the following PDQ summaries for information about other types of leukemia:
- Childhood Acute Myeloid Leukemia/Other Myeloid Malignancies Treatment
- Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia Treatment
- Adult Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Treatment
- Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Treatment
- Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Treatment
- Hairy Cell Leukemia Treatment
Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) is a subtype of AML that occurs when parts of two genes stick together. APL usually occurs in middle-aged adults. Symptoms of APL may include both bleeding and forming blood clots.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Possible risk factors for AML include the following:
- Being male.
- Smoking, especially after age 60.
- Having had treatment with chemotherapy or radiation therapy in the past.
- Having had treatment for childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in the past.
- Being exposed to radiation from an atomic bomb or to the chemical benzene.
- Having a history of a blood disorder such as myelodysplastic syndrome.
The early signs of AML may be like those caused by the flu or other common diseases. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following problems:
- Shortness of breath.
- Easy bruising or bleeding.
- Petechiae (flat, pinpoint spots under the skin caused by bleeding).
- Weakness or feeling tired.
- Weight loss or loss of appetite.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
- Physical exam and history : An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
- Complete blood count (CBC): A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the following:
- The number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
- The amount of hemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen) in the red blood cells.
- The portion of the sample made up of red blood cells.
- Peripheral blood smear : A procedure in which a sample of blood is checked for blast cells, the number and kinds of white blood cells, the number of platelets, and changes in the shape of blood cells.
- Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy : The removal of bone marrow, blood, and a small piece of bone by inserting a hollow needle into the hipbone or breastbone. A pathologist views the bone marrow, blood, and bone under a microscope to look for signs of cancer.
- Cytogenetic analysis : A laboratory test in which the cells in a sample of blood or bone marrow are viewed under a microscope to look for certain changes in the chromosomes. Other tests, such as fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH), may also be done to look for certain changes in the chromosomes.
- Immunophenotyping : A process used to identify cells, based on the types of antigens or markers on the surface of the cell. This process is used to diagnose the subtype of AML by comparing the cancer cells to normal cells of the immune system. For example, a cytochemistry study may test the cells in a sample of tissue using chemicals (dyes) to look for certain changes in the sample. A chemical may cause a color change in one type of leukemia cell but not in another type of leukemia cell.
- Reverse transcription – polymerase chain reaction test (RT–PCR): A laboratory test in which cells in a sample of tissue are studied using chemicals to look for certain changes in the structure or function of genes. This test is used to diagnose certain types of AML including acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL).
- The age of the patient.
- The subtype of AML.
- Whether the patient received chemotherapy in the past to treat a different cancer.
- Whether there is a history of a blood disorder such as myelodysplastic syndrome.
- Whether the cancer has spread to the central nervous system.
- Whether the cancer has been treated before or recurred (come back).
It is important that acute leukemia be treated right away.