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Adult Leukemia

Adult Acute Myeloid Leukemia Overview

Adult acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes abnormal myeloblasts (a type of white blood cell), red blood cells, or platelets.

Adult acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. This type of cancer usually gets worse quickly if it is not treated. It is the most common type of acute leukemia in adults. AML is also called acute myelogenous leukemia, acute myeloblastic leukemia, acute granulocytic leukemia, and acute nonlymphocytic leukemia.

Leukemia may affect red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.

Normally, the bone marrow makes blood stem cells (immature cells) that become mature blood cells over time. A blood stem cell may become a myeloid stem cell or a lymphoid stem cell. A lymphoid stem cell becomes a white blood cell.

A myeloid stem cell becomes one of three types of mature blood cells:

In AML, the myeloid stem cells usually become a type of immature white blood cell called myeloblasts (or myeloid blasts). The myeloblasts in AML are abnormal and do not become healthy white blood cells. Sometimes in AML, too many stem cells become abnormal red blood cells or platelets. These abnormal white blood cells, red blood cells, or platelets are also called leukemia cells or blasts. Leukemia cells can build up in the bone marrow and blood so there is less room for healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. When this happens, infection, anemia, or easy bleeding may occur. The leukemia cells can spread outside the blood to other parts of the body, including the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), skin, and gums.

This summary is about adult AML. See the following PDQ summaries for information about other types of leukemia:

There are different subtypes of AML.

Most AML subtypes are based on how mature (developed) the cancer cells are at the time of diagnosis and how different they are from normal cells.

Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) is a subtype of AML that occurs when parts of two genes stick together. APL usually occurs in middle-aged adults. Signs of APL may include both bleeding and forming blood clots.

Smoking, previous chemotherapy treatment, and exposure to radiation may affect the risk of adult AML.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Possible risk factors for AML include the following:

Signs and symptoms of adult AML include fever, feeling tired, and easy bruising or bleeding.

The early signs and symptoms of AML may be like those caused by the flu or other common diseases. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Fever.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Easy bruising or bleeding.
  • Petechiae (flat, pinpoint spots under the skin caused by bleeding).
  • Weakness or feeling tired.
  • Weight loss or loss of appetite.

 

Adapted from the National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ(r)) Cancer Information Summaries (http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq). Date last modified: March 16, 2015

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Last Reviewed: Apr 17, 2015