What is leukemia?
Leukemia is a cancer Overview of Cancer Cancer is the out-of-control growth of cells in your body. Cells are the tiny building blocks of your body. Cells specialize in what they do. For example, your intestines have muscle cells to... read more of white blood cells. White blood cells have many jobs, including helping your body's immune system Overview of the Immune System The immune system is your body's defense system. It helps protect you from illness and infection. The immune system's job is to attack things that don’t belong in your body, including: Germs... read more fight off infection. White blood cells White Blood Cells The main components of blood include Plasma Red blood cells White blood cells Platelets read more form in your bone marrow, the spongy tissue inside your bones.
With leukemia, you have a very high white blood cell count. However, the cancerous white blood cells don't work properly, so you're likely to get infections. Those infections may be life-threatening.
Also, the cancerous white blood cells fill up your bone marrow so it can't make normal blood cells such as:
Red blood cells Red Blood Cells The main components of blood include Plasma Red blood cells White blood cells Platelets read more (causing anemia Overview of Anemia Anemia is not having enough red blood cells or hemoglobin. Red blood cells carry oxygen from your lungs to all of your other organs. Hemoglobin is the substance inside your red blood cells that... read more )
Normal white blood cells White Blood Cells The main components of blood include Plasma Red blood cells White blood cells Platelets read more (increasing the risk of infection)
Platelets Platelets The main components of blood include Plasma Red blood cells White blood cells Platelets read more (increasing the risk of bleeding)
There are many different types of white blood cells but only 2 main types of leukemia:
Lymphocytic leukemia: cancer of lymphocytes, which are one type of white blood cell
Myelogenous leukemia: cancer of all the other types of white blood cells
Lymphocytic and myelogenous leukemia can be acute or chronic:
Acute: cancer of young cells that spreads quickly and can cause death in 3 to 6 months if untreated
Chronic: cancer of mature cells that spreads more slowly
What is acute myeloid leukemia (AML)?
Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a cancer of certain types of white blood cells.
AML starts in your bone marrow, the spongy tissue inside your bones. Certain types of very young cells (called myeloid stem cells) in your bone marrow that should develop into different types of white blood cells instead become cancerous. The cancer cells grow and spread into your blood and to other parts of your body.
"Acute" means this type of myeloid leukemia spreads very quickly and needs immediate treatment. It's life-threatening.
AML is the most common leukemia in adults, but it can happen to people at any age
You may be tired or pale, get infections and fever easily, and bruise or bleed easily
Doctors do blood and bone marrow tests to find AML
AML is treated with chemotherapy
Sometimes AML is caused by chemotherapy or radiation therapy that was given to you to treat a different cancer
Without treatment, most people with AML die within a few weeks to months, but with treatment, between 20% and 40% of people can be cured
There are several types of AML. One type, called acute promyelocytic leukemia, is now highly curable.
What are the symptoms of AML?
Symptoms of AML may include:
Fever and heavy sweating (from infection or the leukemia)
Leukemia cells get into your blood and move to other organs. They can form small lumps in or under your:
AML cells can also spread to the brain and spinal cord, causing symptoms such as:
Problems seeing, hearing, or balancing
Problems with your face muscles
Acute promyelocytic leukemia can also cause:
Bleeding or blood clotting problems
How can doctors tell if I have AML?
To tell if you have AML, doctors will:
Do blood tests
Other tests to see if AML has spread to major organs may include:
CT (computed tomography) scan Computed Tomography A CT scan uses a large machine shaped like a large donut to take x-rays from many angles. A computer then takes the x-rays and creates many detailed pictures of the inside of your body. Each... read more or MRI Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) MRI is a test that uses a machine with a powerful magnet to make pictures of the inside of your body. A computer creates a series of detailed pictures. Each picture looks like a slice taken... read more (magnetic resonance imaging)
How do doctors treat AML?
Doctors treat AML with chemotherapy Chemotherapy Chemotherapy is a drug that destroys cancer cells. Chemotherapy works by shutting down cell growth. But since all cells in the body grow, chemotherapy drugs also destroy some normal cells and... read more . Chemotherapy, often called “chemo,” is when doctors give you one or more very strong medicines to kill your cancer cells. Other types of medicines and treatments are often used along with chemotherapy to treat the cancer. The goal is cure. If you're cured, you have no cancer cells left in your body. If a cure isn't possible, then the goal is to decrease the number of cancer cells and keep that number low for as long as possible.
Chemotherapy may make you sicker before you get better. The medicines:
Make you more likely to get infections
May cause you to need a blood transfusion
Make you throw up, feel weak and tired, or lose your hair
Treatment for AML goes through 2 phases:
Induction involves getting several strong chemotherapy drugs. The goal of induction is to kill most or all of your cancer cells (called remission).
Consolidation involves getting the same or different chemotherapy drugs for a few months to keep the leukemia from coming back.
Doctors treat acute promyelocytic leukemia with:
A special kind of vitamin A
Arsenic compound medicines
Relapse is very common. Relapse is when a disease comes back after it has been successfully treated. If you don’t relapse within 5 years, you're considered cured.
If your AML comes back after treatment, doctors may do:
With treatment, about 3 out of 10 people with AML are cured. Younger people who are able to tolerate stronger treatment may do better. In acute promyelocytic leukemia, treatments can cure more than 7 in 10 people.
If treatment doesn’t work, you and your doctors may want to consider end-of-life care Choices to Make Before Death Seriously ill people and their families may feel swept along by the fatal illness and the various treatments, as if they have no control over the events. Some people seem to prefer this sense... read more (for example, hospice).