Youth Cancer

Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML)

Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) is a type of leukaemia, that is, a cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. AML relates to the group of leukaemias that develop in the myeloid cell line in the bone marrow.

  • In AML, the normal process of cell production gets out of control and many abnormal leukaemia cells (blast cells) are made.
  • These cells are immature and aren’t able to develop into normal functioning blood cells.


What causes Acute Myeloid Leukaemia?

In most cases the cause of AML is unknown.

There are some risk factors though:

  • High doses of radiation or chemicals used in manufacturing
  • Smoking
  • Certain types of chemotherapy
  • Certain blood disorders


What are the symptoms?

A lack of normal blood cells usually causes symptoms including:

  • Anaemia: which shows as tiredness, breathlessness and pale pallor.
  • Frequent infections that take a while to recover from.
  • More prone to infections than normal.
  • Increased bleeding or bruising.

Other less common, symptoms may include aches and pains, swollen gums and be caused by a build up of leukaemia cells in a particular area of the body, such as:

  • aching bones
  • bluish-purple areas under the skin
  • swollen gums

A routine blood test may reveal that AML exists. Treatment needs to be given as soon as possible.

TIP: If you have any of these symptoms you should have them checked by your doctor - but remember, they are common to many illnesses other than AML.


How is it diagnosed?

After visiting a GP a referral will probably be made to a hospital for some tests.
These may include:

  • X-rays
  • Bone Marrow Biopsy
  • Blood test

If the results of the tests show AML, the GP will make a referral to hospital for advice and treatment from a doctor who specialises in the treatment of blood problems (a haematologist).


How is it treated?

Because AML is a fast developing type of cancer, it usually needs to be treated right away.

A team of doctors and other staff at the hospital will plan treatment. Treatment may be undertaken by an oncologist (a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with chemotherapy) a haematologist (a surgeon who specialises in blood disorders)  and a radiologist (a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with radiation).

Treatment may involve:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiotherapy
  • ATRA (All Trans-Retinoic Acid)
  • Stem cell transplant


Chemotherapy for AML

Chemotherapy is usually the first line treatment for AML. The aim is to achieve remission, meaning that the blast cells can no longer be detected in the blood or marrow, and normal bone marrow has re-established itself.

When in remission there may still be a small number of abnormal cells in they body, so generally further chemo is given to reduce the chances of it coming back. This is called consolidation or post-remission treatment.
For more information about go to our chemotherapy fact sheet.


Stem Cell or Bone Marrow Transplant

If the chemotherapy isn’t successful in getting rid of the disease, a stem cell or bone marrow transplant may be undertaken. The stem cells or bone marrow may be the patients own (taken before the high dose treatment), or donated by someone else (usually a brother or sister).

For more information check out our stem cell or bone marrow transplant fact sheets.


ATRA (All Trans-Retinoic Acid)

People with a type of AML called APML (acute promyelocytic leukaemia) may also be given (in conjunction with chemotherapy) ATRA. It comes from vitamin A (so isn’t chemo) and helps make the leukaemic cells either mature properly, or die.


Radiotherapy for AML

Radiotherapy is generally only given for AML if someone needs a stem cell or bone marrow transplant. This type of radiotherapy is called  total body irradiation, or TBI where the whole body is irradiated.

For more information go to our radiotherapy fact sheet.