What Is Acute Myeloid Leukemia?

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a type of blood cancer. It usually begins in cells that would turn into white blood cells. Sometimes, though, AML can start in other types of blood-forming cells.

Although there’s no cure, there are treatments that can make a big difference.

What Happens

Acute myeloid leukemia starts in the bone marrow. This is the soft inner parts of bones.

With acute types of leukemia such as AML, bone marrow cells don't mature the way they're supposed to. These immature cells, often called blast cells, keep building up.

You may hear other names for acute myeloid leukemia. Doctors may call it:

  • Acute myelocytic leukemia
  • Acute myelogenous leukemia
  • Acute granulocytic leukemia
  • Acute non-lymphocytic leukemia

Without treatment, AML can quickly be life-threatening. Because it's "acute," this type of leukemia can spread quickly to the blood and to other parts of the body, such as the:

  • Lymph nodes
  • Liver
  • Spleen
  • Brain and spinal cord
  • Testicles

Each person is different, and how acute myeloid leukemia affects them depends on certain things, including how well the cancer responds to treatment. Your outlook is better if:

  • You are younger than 60.
  • You have a lower white blood cell count when you're diagnosed.
  • You do not have a history of blood disorders or cancers.
  • You do not have certain gene mutations or chromosome changes.

Causes and Risk Factors

Doctors often don’t know why someone gets AML. But they do know about some of the “risk factors” for the condition. Those are things that make you more likely get it.

Acute myeloid leukemia risk factors include:

  • Smoking
  • Exposure to certain chemicals such as benzene (a solvent used in oil refineries and other industries and present in cigarette smoke), certain cleaning products, detergents, and paint strippers
  • Some chemotherapy drugs used to treat other cancers, such as mechlorethamine, procarbazine, and chlorambucil -- especially when combined with radiation therapy
  • Exposure to high doses of radiation
  • Certain blood disorders such as myeloproliferative disorders (for example, chronic myelogenous leukemia)
  • Some birth defects and disorders, such as Down syndrome
  • Being male
     

Although there is no way to completely prevent AML, you may lower your risk by not smoking and avoiding exposure to chemicals.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on March 13, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: "What is acute myeloid leukemia?" "How is acute myeloid leukemia classified?" "What are the risk factors for acute myeloid leukemia?" "How is acute myeloid leukemia diagnosed?" "Treating Leukemia -- Acute Myeloid (AML) Topics."

Leukemia & Lymphoma Society: "Leukemia Facts & Statistics," "Acute Myeloid Lymphoma."