Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow — the spongy tissue inside bones where blood cells are made.
The word "acute" in acute myelogenous leukemia denotes the disease's rapid progression. It's called myelogenous (my-uh-LOHJ-uh-nus) leukemia because it affects a group of white blood cells called the myeloid cells, which normally develop into the various types of mature blood cells, such as red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.
Acute myelogenous leukemia is also known as acute myeloid leukemia, acute myeloblastic leukemia, acute granulocytic leukemia and acute nonlymphocytic leukemia.
General signs and symptoms of the early stages of acute myelogenous leukemia may mimic those of the flu or other common diseases.
Signs and symptoms of acute myelogenous leukemia include:
- Bone pain
- Lethargy and fatigue
- Shortness of breath
- Pale skin
- Frequent infections
- Easy bruising
- Unusual bleeding, such as frequent nosebleeds and bleeding from the gums
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with a doctor if you develop any signs or symptoms that seem unusual or that worry you.
Acute myelogenous leukemia occurs when a bone marrow cell develops changes (mutations) in its genetic material or DNA. A cell's DNA contains the instructions that tell a cell what to do. Normally, the DNA tells the cell to grow at a set rate and to die at a set time. In acute myelogenous leukemia, the mutations tell the bone marrow cell to continue growing and dividing.
When this happens, blood cell production becomes out of control. The bone marrow produces immature cells that develop into leukemic white blood cells called myeloblasts. These abnormal cells are unable to function properly, and they can build up and crowd out healthy cells.
It's not clear what causes the DNA mutations that lead to leukemia, but doctors have identified factors that increase the risk.
Factors that may increase your risk of acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) include:
- Increasing age. The risk of acute myelogenous leukemia increases with age. Acute myelogenous leukemia is most common in adults age 65 and older.
- Your sex. Men are more likely to develop acute myelogenous leukemia than are women.
- Previous cancer treatment. People who've had certain types of chemotherapy and radiation therapy may have a greater risk of developing AML.
- Exposure to radiation. People exposed to very high levels of radiation, such as survivors of a nuclear reactor accident, have an increased risk of developing AML.
- Dangerous chemical exposure. Exposure to certain chemicals, such as benzene, is linked to a greater risk of AML.
- Smoking. AML is linked to cigarette smoke, which contains benzene and other known cancer-causing chemicals.
- Other blood disorders. People who've had another blood disorder, such as myelodysplasia, myelofibrosis, polycythemia vera or thrombocythemia, are at greater risk of developing AML.
- Genetic disorders. Certain genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome, are associated with an increased risk of AML.
Many people with AML have no known risk factors, and many people who have risk factors never develop the cancer.