Adult Acute Myeloid Leukemia

Written by Autumn Rivers and Winnie Yu | Published on August 16, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD


Acute myeloid leukemia in adults occurs when cancer cells grow within the bone marrow and replace healthy white blood cells. The fact that the disease is acute means it progresses quickly, as opposed to chronic leukemia, which can take several years to spread. This is one of the types of leukemia that adults are most likely to develop, especially after reaching the age of 40.

What Causes Acute Myeloid Leukemia?

There is often no way to know why a patient has acute myeloid leukemia. However, there are risk factors that put some adults at greater risk for this disease. For example, genetics often play a role. If your relatives have been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, you may have a slightly higher chance of developing it, too.

In addition, certain drugs and medical procedures can raise your risk for acute myeloid leukemia. Some chemotherapy drugs and radiation can increase your chances of developing this disease.

Additional risk factors include:

  • exposure to certain chemicals such as benzene which is found in unleaded gasoline
  • weak immune system
  • presence of blood disorders

Also, men are more likely to develop acute myeloid leukemia than women. The average age for developing acute myeloid leukemia is 66 years old.

Signs and Symptoms of Adult AML

Most people will feel as if they have the flu if they acute myeloid leukemia. In fact, frequent illness is a symptom since your immune system is compromised when your white blood cells turn into cancer cells. Frequent illness and infections show that your body cannot fight off illness and may be a sign of acute myeloid leukemia.

Other common symptoms:

  • abnormal menstruation
  • bleeding or swollen gums
  • bruises
  • exhaustion
  • frequent fevers
  • nosebleeds
  • pale skin
  • shortness of breath
  • weight loss

How Is Acute Myeloid Leukemia Adult Diagnosed?

When you go to your doctor, you can expect a physical exam. Your doctor will look for lumps or swollen areas that seem abnormal.

You should also have a blood test that measures your complete blood count (CBC). This lab test will measure your hemoglobin and the percentage of the blood sample that is made up of red blood cells. In addition, it will count your white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.

An additional test that will look for acute myeloid leukemia is a bone marrow aspiration. During this procedure, some of your bone marrow will be removed and studied to find out if leukemia is present. If it is, your doctor will need to follow up to determine which of the eight subtypes of acute myeloid leukemia is present in your body.

Treatment Options for Adult AML

Many doctors start treatment with chemotherapy since a combination of certain medications can kill cancer cells. This treatment is often most effective in the early stages of the disease, when there are usually more healthy cells than cancer cells.

However, chemotherapy can kill healthy white blood cells. That means many patients get sick easily since their white blood cells may be decreased in number. During treatment, you may have to stay away from other people, so that you do not become ill. In addition, you may experience excessive bleeding, hair loss, and extreme fatigue from the chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy does not eliminate all cancer cells, so your doctor may combine it with another option or even stop chemotherapy altogether if it does not work. One possibility is a bone marrow transplant, in which cancerous cells are replaced with healthy bone marrow cells. A gone marrow transplant may need to be repeated multiple times for success.

Another option is radiation therapy, in which radiation is directed toward the mass of cancerous cells. This is not always possible, especially when the cancer has spread or is in a spot that is difficult to pinpoint.

Other treatments include antibiotics to treat infection, platelet transfusions to stop excessive bleeding, and transfusions of red blood cells to remedy anemia. In addition, new treatments are constantly being tested out in clinical trials.

What is The Long-Term Outlook?

If the treatment works and there are no more leukemia cells to be found, you are considered in remission. You will likely have to be checked periodically by your doctor to make sure the cancer does not come back.

When treatment does not eliminate the acute myeloid leukemia, you may be offered different treatments until all your treatment options are exhausted. If the cancer remains, you may be given palliative care to maintain a quality of life.

The five-year survival rate of those diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia is about 23 percent. Without any treatment, many adults with acute myeloid leukemia may pass away within months or just a few years of onset.

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Show Sources

  • Acute myeloid leukemia. (n.d.). National Cancer Institute. Retrieved April 6, 2012, from

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