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The blood and acute myeloid leukaemia

Men and women discussing acute myeloid leukaemia

This page explains what acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) is. There is information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

The blood and acute myeloid leukaemia

Leukaemia is a cancer of the white blood cells and bone marrow. There are several types and subtypes. In acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) white blood cells called granulocytes or monocytes become cancerous.

Blood cells and leukaemia

Your body makes blood cells in the bone marrow. This is the soft inner part of your bones. You make blood cells in a controlled way, as your body needs them. All blood cells start as the same type of cell, called a stem cell. Stem cells then develop into one of four different types, which in turn become red blood cells, platelets, or different types of white blood cells.

In acute myeloid leukaemia, the bone marrow makes too many white cells called monocytes or granulocytes. The cells made are not fully developed and do not work normally.

How leukaemia affects you

White blood cells help fight infection. If your body doesn't have enough healthy white blood cells, you are more likely to get infections. And you can find it difficult to get rid of them. Abnormal white blood cells can also build up in parts of the lymphatic system (the spleen and lymph nodes) and in the liver.

If there are too many white blood cells, the bone marrow gets overcrowded and there is not enough space for other types of blood cells. So you may have lower than normal levels of red blood cells and platelets.

 

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What leukaemia is

Leukaemia is a cancer of the white blood cells and bone marrow. Because white blood cells are found in the lymph nodes and the spleen, leukaemia can affect them, as well as other organs in the body.

Leukaemia is a complicated disease. There are several types and subtypes. The name of the leukaemia you have depends on

  • How quickly it develops
  • The type of white blood cell that becomes cancerous

In acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) white blood cells called granulocytes or monocytes become cancerous. AML usually develops quickly, over days or weeks. It is the most common type of leukaemia in adults. It is most often diagnosed in older people, and is most common in people over 65 years old.

 

Blood cells and leukaemia

To understand how and why leukaemia affects you as it does, it helps to know about blood cells.

Your body makes blood cells in the bone marrow. The bone marrow is the soft inner part of your bones. You make blood cells in a controlled way, as your body needs them.

All blood cells start as the same type of cell, called a stem cell. This stem cell then develops into

  • Myeloid stem cells, which become white blood cells called monocytes and granulocytes (neutrophils)
  • Lymphoid stem cells, which become white blood cells called lymphocytes
  • Erythroblasts, which become red blood cells
  • Megakaryocytes, which become platelets

The diagram below helps to explain this.

Diagram showing how blood cells are made

 

Types of leukaemia

Doctors divide leukaemia into 2 main groups based on the speed that the leukaemia develops. Acute leukaemia develops very quickly. Chronic leukaemia tends to develop slowly, usually over months or years. For a long time, it may not cause many symptoms.

Doctors further divide these groups depending on the type of white blood cell they affect. Acute leukaemias include

  • Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), which affects myeloid cells
  • Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), which affects lymphoid cells

Chronic leukaemias include

  • Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML), which affects myeloid cells
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), which affects lymphocytes

In acute myeloid leukaemia, the bone marrow makes too many monocytes or granulocytes. These cells are not fully developed and are not able to work normally.

Diagram showing the cells in which AML starts

 

How leukaemia affects you

White blood cells help fight infection. But leukaemia causes your body to make abnormal white blood cells that don’t work properly. So you are more likely to get infections and find it difficult to get rid of them.

If there are too many white blood cells, the bone marrow gets overcrowded and there is not enough space for other types of blood cells. So you may have lower than normal levels of red blood cells and platelets.

Having too few red blood cells makes you tired and breathless (anaemic). If you don’t have enough platelets, you can have bleeding problems, such as bruising or nosebleeds.

Abnormal white blood cells can also build up in parts of the lymphatic system (the spleen and lymph nodes), and in the liver. This can make your abdomen swell and feel uncomfortable.

 

For more information

Find out about

Blood cells and what they do

Symptoms of AML

Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL)

Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML)

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia (CLL)

For general information and support

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Updated: 10 February 2014