Getting an AML diagnosis can feel overwhelming because everything happens so fast. It’s an aggressive type of blood cancer and you’ll probably be advised to start treatment right away.

It’s also a complex condition, so it helps to have clear information.

‘Acute’ means AML develops rapidly, and ‘myeloid’ tells you that it affects a particular group of white blood cells.

AML occurs when abnormal cells in your bone marrow grow uncontrollably and don’t develop properly into mature blood cells. These immature cells are called myeloid blasts. AML affects your white blood cells, and sometimes your red blood cells and platelets.

In our general information about leukaemia, you can learn more about blood cells, and the way they are made in a process called haematopoiesis.

What are the symptoms of AML?

The symptoms of AML appear over a few days or weeks and are likely to get worse quickly. These symptoms can include:

  • tiredness
  • feeling weak
  • pale skin
  • breathlessness
  • unusual bleeding or bruises
  • frequent infections
  • losing weight
  • fever
  • sweating
  • full or tender feeling in your abdomen
  • swollen glands in your neck, armpits, or groin.

What causes AML?

We don’t know what causes AML. The chances of developing AML are higher than usual for people who:

  • Smoke
  • Are overweight
  • Have been exposed to the chemical benzene
  • Had previous chemotherapy or radiotherapy
  • Have certain inherited conditions, including Down syndrome
  • Have certain autoimmune or blood disorders.
  • Have been exposed to high levels of radiation (but hardly anyone is exposed to these levels in everyday life).

In the UK, about 4 in 10 people with AML are aged 75 or older. It affects more men than women.

It’s rare but AML can affect children. This is a very difficult situation for your child, you, and the whole family, but it may be comforting to know that treatment is most likely to succeed in this age group.

How is AML diagnosed?

If AML is suspected, you’ll be offered blood tests and a bone marrow biopsy to confirm the diagnosis.

In the laboratory, the cancer cells can be analysed for abnormal genes, to determine what type of AML you have. This information is important because it helps your doctor choose the best treatment to recommend.

Sometimes, AML can spread to other parts of the body, so your doctor may recommend a lumbar puncture to check your spinal fluid for cancer cells.

You may also have other tests such as a chest X-ray or heart scan.

What are the types of AML?

AML is divided into different subtypes. There are two systems used to classify AML, called the French-American-British (FAB) system and the World Health Organization (WHO) system.

Some people have a specific subtype of AML called acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL or APML), which is treated differently from the other types of AML.

What is the treatment for AML?

Chemotherapy is the first step in treatment for AML. It happens in two stages:

  • Induction aims to get rid of the cancer cells.
  • Consolidation tries to keep the cancer cells from coming back.

Some of the drugs used in chemotherapy for AML are:

  • Cytarabine
  • Idarubicin (also called Zavedos)
  • Daunorubicin
  • Mitoxantrone (Onkotrone)
  • A combination of daunorubicin and Cytarabine (Vyxeos).

There are also some newer drugs for AML:

  • Enasidenib
  • Glasdegib
  • Gilteritinib .

Some people have a stem cell transplant (also known as a bone marrow transplant). You may be able to join a clinical trial or benefit from supportive care.

What is the outlook (survival) for AML?

AML is an aggressive cancer and overall, about 20 in 100 (20%) of people survive for at least five years.

The outlook changes a lot depending on age: about 60% of people aged 15 to 24 survive for five years or more, while the figure is 40% at ages 25-64, and 5% for people aged 65 or older.

Hearing the news about AML, and getting through treatment and beyond, can be a tough experience but you don’t have to handle it on your own. For information about what happens after treatment, including places to find extra support, read our section on living with leukaemia.