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Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) causes

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When you’re diagnosed with any cancer, one of the first things you might think is: ‘why me?’

In many cases, we still don’t know what causes AML. We know that some things that we can’t change have an impact on AML, like age and sex.

We also know that there are some rare external factors which can have an impact, like exposure to radiation or chemicals. Sometimes, you can also be at an increased risk of getting AML if you’ve got a related blood condition, or if you’ve been treated for a different cancer in the past.

Causes of AML

We’re now beginning to understand why age is important. As you get older, you have more time to acquire the errors in your DNA which can cause AML. People of all ages can develop AML, but you’re more likely to get AML above the age of 60. Around a quarter of people who are diagnosed are under 65.

In some very rare cases, children can develop AML – this is called childhood AML.

Find out more about childhood AML

Slightly more men than women develop AML. We don’t know why.

In most cases, AML doesn’t run in families. However, rarely, in some families there are more cases of AML than we’d expect to occur by chance.

If you’re concerned about this, do discuss it with your doctor.

Exposure to very high radiation levels increases the risk of developing AML. Hardly anyone is exposed to these levels of radiation in normal everyday life.

Exposure to certain other chemicals could also increase the risk of getting AML. One of these chemicals is called benzene, which is found in cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes. Whilst smoking cigarettes has been reported to increase the risk of getting AML, exhaust fumes don’t have enough benzene to pose a risk.

If you have another condition which affects the production of myeloid cells, you can be at higher risk of getting AML. In these cases, the cancer is called secondary AML. Between 25–40% of AML cases in over 60s can be linked to a previous condition.

These conditions are called antecedent haematological disorders and include myelofibrosis and myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS).

Some patients can develop AML after being treated for another illness with either chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy.

This type of AML is called treatment-related AML (tAML). Certain types of chemotherapy and radiotherapy are more likely to cause this than others.

Your chance of developing tAML is based on the type of treatment you originally had for the other illness or cancer. The risk of getting tAML is highest between five and eight years after receiving treatment for the other cancer, but some patients can develop it earlier.

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