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What is Acute Myelogenous Leukemia?

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Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is fast-growing cancer that starts inside bone marrow, the soft tissue inside bones that helps form blood cells. The cancer grows from cells that would normally turn into white blood cells that help fight infection.

With AML, the bone marrow may also make abnormal red blood cells and platelets. The number of quick-growing abnormal cells (or leukemia cells) crowd out the normal blood cells, white blood cells and platelets the body needs to function normally.

AML is one of the most common types of leukemia among adults. It is more common in men than women. This type of leukemia is rare under age 40; generally occurring around age 65.

Acute myelogenous leukemia is also known as acute myeloid leukemia, acute myeloblastic leukemia, acute granulocytic leukemia and acute nonlymphocytic leukemia.

Leukemia is one of the best studied cancers to date, but the cause of some types, including AML, is still poorly understood. In Feb. 2010, doctors at Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania reported they had found a genetic mutation in AML patients could account for half of the remaining cases of adult acute (fast-growing) leukemia with an unknown origin.

Craig B. Thompson, MD, Abramson Cancer Center director and senior author of the study published online in the peer-review journal Cancer Cell said the mutation could cause between one quarter and one third of AML in older patients.

Other risks leading to some types of leukemia, including AML, are exposure to chemicals such as benzene, certain chemotherapy drugs, including etoposide and alkylating agents, and previous radiation exposure.

AML symptoms include:

  • Abnormal menstrual periods
  • Bleeding from the nose
  • Bleeding gums
  • Bruising
  • Bone pain and tenderness
  • Fever
  • Paleness
  • Shortness of breath (worsens with exercise)
  • Skin rash or lesion
  • Swollen gums (rare)
  • weight loss

Treatment typically includes chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells. However, chemotherapy kills normal cells too, so patients may experience side effects such as excessive bleeding and an increased risk for infection. Your doctor may want to keep you away from other people to prevent infection.

Other treatments for AML may also include:

  • Antibiotics to treat infection
  • Bone marrow transplant or stem cell transplant
  • Red blood cell transfusions to fight anemia
  • Transfusions of platelets to control bleeding

Treatment outcomes and five-year survival rates are better for younger patients than for those who are diagnosed at an older age. Complete remission occurs in many patients. Experts say younger patients may better tolerate the treatment and this may account for better outcomes compared to older patients. If the cancer does not come back (a relapse) within five years of diagnosis, you are considered permanently cured. Most patients who suffer a relapse do so within two years.

The National Marrow Donor Program has more information on AML at http://www.marrow.org/PATIENT/Undrstnd_Disease_Treat/Lrn_about_Disease/AML/index.html

Lynette Summerill, is an award-winning journalist who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues, she writes a blog, Nonsmoking Nation, which follows global tobacco news and events.

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Expert HERWriter Guide Blogger

Lynette - I've met several AML survivors through the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and appreciate this article. Many people still believe that leukemia is an automatic death sentence and aren't familiar with the progress that's been made in treating this blood cancer. The more that can be done to educate people, the better! Thanks, Pat

March 2, 2010 - 6:03pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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