Acute Myeloid Leukemia Symptoms in Adults: Signs and Treatment of AML for Adults
What This Article Covers:
Acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, is a rapidly progressing form of cancer that occurs in the blood and bone marrow and affects the body’s ability to produce mature blood cells, such as white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. The majority of the symptoms of AML are actually caused by these abnormally developed blood cells.
In healthy adults, blood stem cells are formed in the bone marrow (the spongy tissue on the interior of bones) and eventually become mature blood cells over time. Blood stem cells come in 2 forms: a myeloid stem cell and a lymphoid stem cells. White blood cells develop from lymphoid stem cells, whereas, red blood cells, granulocytes and platelets all come from myeloid stem cells.
Symptoms from Low White Blood Cells
White blood cells, sometimes referred to as leukocytes, are the infection fighting cells that are the first responders of the body’s immune system. White blood cells travel through the bloodstream and tissues, locate the site of infection, and begin the attack on the unknown organism by producing antibody proteins that attach to the infection cells and are uniquely designed to destroy the invading organism. Acute myeloid leukemia and other adult leukemia cancers affect the production of healthy white blood cells.
There are five types of white blood cells:
- Neutrophils: Kill bacteria, fungi and foreign debris.
- Lymphocytes: Protect against viral infections by producing proteins, or antibodies, to fight infection.
- Eosinophils: Destroy parasites, cancer cells and assist with your allergic response to antigens.
- Basophils: Produces an allergic response like coughing, sneezing or a runny nose.
- Monocytes: Clean up damaged cells which helps the body fight infection.
AML causes a shortage of the normal white blood cells in the body, in particular the neutrophils. This shortage of white blood cells often leads to infections that don’t seem to go away.
Leukemia symptoms frequently caused by a low white blood cell count:
- Frequent infections
- Fever (typically a side effect of infection), body aches or chills
- A wound that will not heal
Sometimes patients with AML can suffer from high white blood cell counts, due to the number of leukemia cells in their body, however, these white blood cells are not fully formed and cannot fight off infection.
Symptoms from Low Red Blood Cells
Besides giving blood its distinctive color, red blood cells work to carry oxygen throughout our bodies providing the energy needed for many vital processes in the body. As the red blood cells return to the lungs from their journey through the body, they bring back carbon dioxide to be expelled from the lungs.
Symptoms of a low red blood cell count (called “anemia”) include:
- Fatigue and muscle weakness
- Shortness of breath during normal physical activities
- Headaches, dizziness or faintness
- Blurry vision
- Pale complexion
- Cold hands and feet
Red blood cells have a limited lifespan of an average of 120 days. The body must constantly generate new red blood cells and acute myeloid leukemia, because it is a blood cancer, affects the body’s ability to regenerate these healthy cells.
Chemotherapy treatment for AML or other types of cancer, diet, overall health and smoking can all negatively affect the red blood cell count.
Other Signs of AML Cancer in Adults
Many of the signs of acute myeloid leukemia can be mistaken for the flu or other common diseases at disease onset. As always you should make an appointment with your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms and are concerned about your health.
Acute myeloid leukemia is a rare disease, but can often be confirmed with a simple blood test or bone marrow test to confirm the presence of leukemia cells.
Symptoms of a low platelet count (called “thrombocytopenia”) include:
- Bruising easily
- Pinhead-sized red spots on the skin, called “petechiae”
- Prolonged or unusual bleeding
- Frequent or severe nosebleeds
- Bone pain or discomfort in the bones or joints
Other general symptoms of AML include:
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss
- Fullness or swelling in the abdomen, due to an enlarged spleen or liver
Typical Treatment for Adult Acute Myeloid Leukemia
Once diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a patient may undergo additional testing to determine the subtype of AML and how far the disease has progressed. A treatment plan can then be determined. Since there is currently no cure for AML, the goal of any treatment plan is remission of the cancer by killing the leukemia cells in the blood and bone marrow. Additional treatment to prevent AML from returning is typically needed.
AML treatment is typically divided into 2 phases:
- Remission Induction – This treatment is typically performed in a health care facility so that patients can receive support and care from their health care team. Induction typically destroys not only the leukemia cells in the bone marrow, but also healthy bone marrow cells. Because of this, blood cell counts can drop significantly, and patients may need the help of antibiotics, blood product transfusions, growth factor drugs, and even a stem cell transplant to facilitate induction.
- Post Remission Therapy – Once remission is achieved, further treatment of the cancer is given to destroy any remaining leukemia cells and prevent relapse of AML. Acute myeloid leukemia treatment options can include chemotherapy drugs, a bone marrow transplant, as well as other treatment options.