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Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2019

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood. It begins when healthy blood cells change and divide out of control, growing in numbers of cells that overwhelms the body. Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a type of leukemia that is a cancer of the blood-forming tissue in the bone marrow, the spongy tissue inside your bones. AML may also be called acute nonlymphocytic leukemia or acute myelogenous leukemia.

About bone marrow and blood cells

Bone marrow is the spongy, red tissue in the inner part of the large bones. It is where a person’s blood cells are made. Healthy immature blood cells are called “blasts.” Blasts mature into one of 3 different types of blood cells:

  • White blood cells, which fight infection in the body
  • Red blood cells, which carry oxygen and other nutrients throughout the body
  • Platelets, which help the blood to clot

About AML

In AML, the bone marrow makes many abnormal cancerous cells, also called blasts or myeloblasts because they look similar to healthy immature blast cells. Instead of becoming healthy mature blood cells, cancerous cells divide rapidly and out of control. The cancerous cells are unable to mature, they do not work like healthy blast cells, and these cells do not die easily.

Eventually, these myeloblasts fill up the bone marrow, preventing healthy cells from being made, and then build up in the bloodstream. They can also move into the lymph nodes, brain, skin, liver, kidneys, ovaries, testicles, and other organs. AML cells occasionally form a solid mass or tumor, called a chloroma.

Both children and adults can develop leukemia. This section is about AML that occurs in children, sometimes called pediatric AML. Learn more about AML in adults in another section on this same website.