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Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) - Causes, Symptoms, and Genetics

Your Health / Conditions / Cancer / Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) - Causes, Symptoms, and Genetics

Published on Mar 8, 2022
Medically reviewed by Pfizer Oncology Team


Acute myeloid leukaemia, also known as acute myelogenous leukaemia, is a type of blood cancer that originates in the blood and bone marrow (the inner parts of the bone). It is the most common form of leukaemia1—as of 2017, AML accounted for approximately 23% of leukaemia cases worldwide.2 Yet, it is still considered a rare form of cancer.​​​​​

What is AML?

AML develops in the myeloid cells of the body, which consist of red blood cells, platelets, and some white blood cells. In cases of AML, abnormal white blood cells develop at a rapid rate and end up crowding the bone marrow, preventing normal blood cell production. These abnormal blood cells are called myeloblasts or leukaemic blasts, and they don’t function normally. What’s more, they can spread to other areas of the body, affecting other organs and tissues.

Because of its rapid progression, if AML is not diagnosed and treated immediately, it can be life-threatening. Treatment methods vary depending on the specific subtype of AML (of which there are eight) a person has.

Who can get AML?

AML can occur in both adults and children but it is much more common in older people over the age of 65.1 In addition, according to studies, more men are diagnosed with AML than women.3

What causes AML?

Research indicates that AML is caused by environmental factors or a genetic mutation, or change, in certain blood-producing cells, although exactly why the mutation occurs in the first place has yet to be discovered. There are also possible risk factors that may increase one’s chance of developing AML.

Those include:

  • Increasing age
  • Male
  • A smoker, especially after age 60
  • ​​​​​​Past chemotherapy or radiation therapy ​​​​​​​
  • ​​​​​​Diagnosed and treated for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) as a child
  • ​​​​​​Exposure to high levels of radiation
  • History of a blood disorder such as myelodysplastic syndrome
  • Family history of AML
  • ​​​​​​​Exposure to chemicals​​​​​​​

What are the signs and symptoms?

The main symptoms of AML are caused by a lack of functioning blood cells, which can lead to anaemia.

​​​​​​​Here are the most common signs and symptoms:

  • Unexplained tiredness, weakness and lethargy
  • Headaches, dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Infections that don’t go away
  • Problems with bleeding and clotting
  • Bruising and bleeding easily
  • ​​​​​​​Bone and joint pain
  • Swelling in the abdomen (stomach area)
  • Enlarged lymph nodes

How will AML affect my life?

Science has come a long way in treating leukaemia—new, advanced treatment methods and therapies are available now that weren’t a few years ago. If you or someone you love is diagnosed with AML, it will undoubtedly shape your life in new and challenging ways. The first step is to work closely with your medical care team to determine the best treatment for your type of AML. This typically involves chemotherapy, blood transfusions, antibiotics, and other drug treatments. Clinical trials are another option to consider—speak with your medical team for more information and whether you qualify to participate in a trial. Many people living with AML find that complementary therapies like yoga, meditation, nutritional counselling, and acupuncture help manage symptoms when used alongside their medical treatment.​​​​​​

Besides your dedicated medical team, it’s vital that you have a strong support system in your personal life. Many people with AML find that talking and sharing their emotions, worries, and fears with others—whether it be a family member, friend, or counsellor—helps tremendously when processing and coping with an AML diagnosis.​​​​

Living with AML can be a life-changing experience, however, it’s important to know that you’re not alone. If you need extra help, there are many resources and support networks that you can lean on. Ask your medical team for guidance, or, find additional support and helpful resources on www.leukemia.org.au


  1. Schiffer, Charles; Gurbuxani, Sandeep. Clinical manifestations, pathologic features, and diagnosis of acute myeloid leukaemia. UptoDate: Aug 15, 2019. Available here: https://www.uptodate.com/contents/clinical-manifestations-pathologic-features-and-diagnosis-of-acute-myeloid-leukaemia. Accessed February 16, 2021.
  2. Dong, Y., Shi, O., Zeng, Q. et al. Leukaemia incidence trends at the global, regional, and national level between 1990 and 2017. Exp Hematol Oncol 9, 14 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40164-020-00170-6. Accessed February 16, 2021.
  3. Jackson N, Menon BS, Zarina W, Zawawi N, Naing NN. Why is acute leukaemia more common in males? A possible sex-determined risk linked to the ABO blood group genes. Annals of Hematology: May 1999. Available here: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10391104/. Accessed February 17, 2021.

Last reviewed 07/2021

​​​​​​​External Resources

-Leukaemia Foundation

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