Acute Myeloid Leukaemia

What is acute myeloid leukaemia?

Acute myeloid leukaemia, otherwise known as AML, is a form of leukaemia and a cancer that affects the white blood cells. Acute myeloid leukaemia causes abnormal, immature myeloid blood cells to be produced and these fill the bone marrow, preventing it from making healthy red blood cells and platelets. AML is not a common form of cancer, but it is estimated that there are around 1,800 cases per year in England and Wales. This condition tends to affect people over the age of 50.

What causes AML?

  • Exposure to radiation
  • Smoking and exposure to benzene
  • Blood disorders (such as myelodysplasia)
  • Chemotherapy and radiotherapy – in rare cases, these treatments can cause leukaemia years later

Types of AML

There are different forms of AML and doctors classify AML according to the category of cell that has become cancerous. Doctors in the UK use the World Health Organisation and FAB classification systems (French American British).

Symptoms of AML

Many of the symptoms associated with AML are quite general, but the condition advances quickly, so if you do experience any of the following symptoms, arrange to see your GP:

  • Weakness
  • Tiredness and lethargy
  • Unusual paleness
  • Bruising easily and abnormal bleeding
  • Breathlessness
  • Suffering from a series of infections
  • General feeling of illness
  • Weight loss
  • High temperature
  • Muscle and joint pain and aches

How is AML diagnosed?

If you have symptoms of AML your GP will perform a blood test. If the blood test should show abnormal results, you will be referred to a hospital where doctors will perform a physical assessment and more blood tests. The samples will then be analysed by a haematologist, and if they detect leukaemia cells, a biopsy of bone marrow will be taken and analysed. A haematologist is able to determine which type of leukaemia an individual has. Further tests may also be carried out to check that the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys are healthy.

How is AML treated?

AML is usually treated with a mixture of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and in some cases, a bone marrow transplant may be carried out. Once an individual is diagnosed they will be cared for by a multi-disciplinary team.

What is the outlook for people with AML?

It is difficult to say what the outlook is for AML sufferers because some forms of the disease are more aggressive than others – with certain types having a much more positive outlook than others. Younger people tend to have a more positive outcome than older patients.

Living with AML

Being diagnosed with cancer is very difficult and you may feel afraid and worried. However, your multi-disciplinary team are there to help and they will manage every aspect of your care. Leukaemia often makes people susceptible to illnesses and infections and you may feel tired and sluggish. If you need advice, information or support, you can talk to your care team or there are various charities offering assistance.

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