Receiving an acute myeloid leukemia (AML) diagnosis can be overwhelming. You may feel bombarded with information from your doctor, articles you’ve read online, and well-meaning friends.
Here are some of the essentials you’ll need to think about as you embark on a treatment plan.
1. What type of AML do you have?
AML is divided into different subtypes based on gene changes, and how the leukemia cells look under a microscope. Each subtype behaves, and responds to treatment, a little bit differently.
Your doctor will do a blood or bone marrow test to find out which AML type you have.
The samples will go to a lab, where they’ll be tested for changes — or mutations — to genes, including the FLT3 gene.
The FLT3 gene codes for a protein that helps white blood cells grow. A mutation in this gene leads to the production of too many abnormal leukemia cells.
Your AML subtype will determine which treatment you get, and your outlook. Some gene changes, like FLT3, cause the cancer to be more aggressive. Today, medication is available that can target cancers with this and other gene changes.
2. What are your treatment options?
Before you start treatment, you should understand why your doctor is prescribing the drug. Also find out how it will help you, and what side effects it might cause.
Most types of AML are first treated with chemotherapy to kill as many leukemia cells as possible. Which chemo drug or combination of drugs you get depends on your age and other factors.
For the FLT3 gene mutation, you might also get the targeted drug midostaurin (Rydapt) with the chemo. This drug can significantly prolong survival in people with the mutation.
3. What are the side effects of AML treatment?
Any treatment you get can have side effects. Your doctor will make every effort to balance out the benefits and risks when prescribing a treatment for you.
Side effects from chemotherapy include:
- hair loss
- nausea and vomiting
- mouth sores
- appetite loss
- diarrhea or constipation
- increased risk of infections
- easy bruising or bleeding
Midostaurin can cause side effects such as:
- nausea or vomiting
- mouth sores
- increased risk of infection
- muscle or bone pain
- bruising or bleeding
Your doctor has ways to help you manage any side effects you experience. Most side effects should go away once you stop the treatment.
4. Can you try a complementary treatment?
No alternative remedy is effective in treating AML. Yet complementary therapies can help relieve your leukemia symptoms and treatment side effects when you use them alongside standard therapies.
Acupuncture and acupressure may help with nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. Other complementary treatments that could help you feel better include:
- guided imagery
- deep breathing reflexology
- relaxation exercises
Ask your doctor before you try any new treatment. Be especially cautious when using herbal and vitamin supplements, because they could interact with your cancer drugs or other medications you take.
5. What’s new in AML treatment?
Researchers are always learning more about AML and what treatments work best against it. They’re testing out new drugs, and new combinations of older drugs, in clinical trials.
One area of research focuses on targeted therapies that block the substances needed for the cancer to grow. Some new drugs block mutated genes like FLT3. Others prevent AML cells from becoming resistant to the effects of chemotherapy.
Another area of research is immunotherapy. This treatment stimulates the body’s immune response to fight off the tumor.
Many of these treatments aren’t available just yet. But you may be able to try them by enrolling in a clinical trial. Ask your doctor if any of the current clinical trials for AML might be a good fit for you.
6. Are there support groups?
Facing a cancer diagnosis can be frightening. The people you rely on most may be unfamiliar with your cancer, and unaware of what you’re going through.
If you need advice and support, turn to your medical team. Join an AML support group at your local hospital or through an organization like the American Cancer Society or Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Or, meet with a therapist who has experience treating people with leukemia.
7. What’s your outlook?
The five-year survival rate for AML is about 24 percent. This statistic tells you how many people out of 100 will still be alive five years after their diagnosis.
When you look at numbers like this, remember that no statistic can accurately predict your future. Your outlook depends on factors like your age, the type of AML you have, and what treatments you get.
AML survival rates may look very different in the future. New treatments in development could one day improve the outcome for people with this cancer.