Acute myeloid leukaemia

Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) is a cancer of the white blood cells that begins in the bone marrow.

The bone marrow and blood cells

All of the blood cells in your body are produced in the bone marrow: the spongy tissue that is found in the middle of your bones. All blood cells start their lives as stem cells. These grow and divide within the bone marrow and mature into:

  • Red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body
  • White blood cells that help fight infection
  • Platelets that help clot the blood to control bleeding and bruising.

Leukaemia happens when immature white blood cells are overproduced. These do not work properly as they have not matured into the type of cell they were supposed to be. This prevents the normal production of healthy blood cells.

Who does it affect?

Acute myeloid leukaemia (or AML for short) can occur in anyone, of any age.

What are the symptoms?

When leukaemia happens, immature white blood cells are overproduced. This prevents the normal the production of healthy blood cells. This can cause:

  • Anaemia: the number of red blood cells are reduced, which can cause tiredness, breathless and feeling constantly run down
  • Bruising and bleeding: the number of platelets are reduced, which means blood is not able to clot as well as it did previously
  • Infections: infections might happen more often as there are less healthy blood cells to fight them.

How is it diagnosed?

AML is usually suspected from a blood test, which will reveal changes in the numbers of healthy white blood cells. If the blood test suggests that leukaemia is present, a specialist will need to take a sample of bone marrow. This sample will be looked at under a microscope to work out the type of leukaemia.

Your specialist will also need to do a lumbar puncture to see if the spinal fluid contains any leukaemia cells.

How is it treated?

AML is usually treated in two phases:

  1. The first phase, known as ‘induction’, aims to destroy the leukaemia cells with chemotherapy. This phase usually takes four to six weeks and much of this time might need to be spent in the hospital to reduce the risk of infections.
  2. ‘Consolidation treatment’ then takes place to stop the leukaemia coming back. This may mean more chemotherapy, high-dose chemotherapy or a stem cell transplant.

Your particular treatment plan will depend on your leukaemia and how it responds to treatment, so it’s best to talk to your specialist about what will be involved.

What happens after treatment?

Treatment for AML can lead to a range of long-term effects but these vary from person to person, and some don’t experience any at all. They can include fatigue, a lower resistance to infections, infertility, and heart or thyroid problems.

Talk to your specialist about the potential long-term side effects of your child’s treatment.

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