Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is cancer affecting blood cells. When the myeloid cells become abnormal, these cells then grow uncontrollably. White blood cells are often affected, but red blood cells and platelets can also be affected. As these abnormal cells grow, they crowd out the bone marrow. This prevents healthy cells from having room to grow.
AML is adults’ most common type of acute (fast-growing) leukemia. In addition to affecting the bone marrow, leukemia can invade other body areas.
Risk factors associated with developing AML can include:
- Being of the male sex
- Increasing age
- Tobacco use
- History of radiation exposure
- History of having chemotherapy previously
Symptoms of AML can vary for each person, but some of the common symptoms of this cancer include:
- Flu-like symptoms
- Night sweats
- Unintentional weight loss
- Easy bleeding or bruising
- Feeling very fatigued
- Frequent or recurrent infections
When someone presents to their healthcare provider with their concerning symptoms, lab work may be done to help find the cause of the symptoms. One of the commonly ordered lab tests is a complete blood count or CBC. This gives the provider the number of all of the different types of blood cells that the bone marrow makes. In AML, these counts may be significantly out of range, and some levels can be significantly high or low.
Other blood tests can be drawn to help get a diagnosis. One test is called flow cytometry, which looks at the blood cells in a unique way to find characteristics that may be present in leukemia.
Another diagnostic test is a bone marrow biopsy, during which a sample of bone marrow and bone is removed to be tested for the presence of leukemia cells.
Imaging studies such as CT scan may be done to see if the internal organs appear normal or if there has been an invasion of cancer cells into any area outside of the bone marrow.
The exact treatment for AML will be determined once the diagnosis is made and all testing is complete. Other lab tests will often be evaluated to assess chromosomes and other leukemia characteristics that may influence treatment decisions.
Chemotherapy is often used to treat AML and is given in different phases, the first to kill the cancer cells in the bone marrow and the next phase to keep the cells from growing back. Radiation therapy may also be used with high-energy beams targeted at cancerous areas.
A stem cell transplant may be done in some individuals with AML. During this procedure, high doses of chemotherapy are given to kill the cells of the bone marrow. Stem cells are then transfused to help the body make blood cells again.
If you’ve been diagnosed with AML, talk to your cancer team about the specifics of your cancer. They can help you understand your diagnosis and how best to treat it.