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Leukemia is a cancer of the blood. Leukemia begins when normal blood cells change and grow uncontrollably. Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a disorder of the process that normally produces neutrophils, a type of white blood cell. AML may sometimes be called acute myelogenous leukemia, acute myelocytic leukemia, or acute nonlymphocytic leukemia. Unlike chronic leukemia, acute leukemia develops quickly and generally needs immediate treatment. AML occurs in people of all ages but is most common in adults older than 65.
Neutrophils fight infections caused by bacteria. Mature neutrophils develop from immature (undeveloped) white blood cells in a process called differentiation. The production of mature neutrophils usually is highly regulated. For example, the body rapidly makes more neutrophils during an infection and returns to a regular level of production when the infection is controlled.
In AML, acquired mutations (damage to the genetic material or DNA) in the blood-forming cells cause problems with the normal process of differentiation. This results in the build-up of many immature cells called myeloblasts or blasts. Blasts do not act like fully developed, healthy blood cells. The large number of blasts also reduces the production of healthy red blood cells and platelets (cells that help the blood to clot). Therefore, people with AML are usually anemic (because they do not have enough red blood cells), more likely to get infections (because they do not have enough mature neutrophils), and bruise or bleed easily (because of a low level of platelets).
AML is usually found in the blood and bone marrow (the spongy, red tissue in the inner part of the large bones), but it can sometimes also invade other parts of the body, such as the brain, skin, and gums. Occasionally, AML cells can form a solid tumor called a myeloid sarcoma or chloroma that can be develop anywhere in the body.
This section is about AML in adults. Read about childhood AML.
Find out more about basic cancer terms used in this section.
Looking for More of an Overview?
If you would like additional introductory information, explore these related items on Cancer.Net:
- ASCO Answers Fact Sheet: Read a one-page fact sheet (available in PDF) that offers an easy-to-print introduction for this type of cancer.
- Cancer.Net Patient Education Video: View a short video led by an ASCO expert in leukemia that provides basic information and areas of research.
- Cancer.Net En Español: Read about AML in Spanish. Infórmase sobre leucemia mieloide aguda en español.
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