Childhood Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)

Expert Care and Treatment for Childhood Blood Cancers

The Hematologic Malignancy Center at Dana-Farber/Boston Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders Center is one of the top pediatric leukemia and lymphoma treatment centers in the world. In addition to treating blood cancers, our Center also treats histiocytosis, a condition that shares some of the characteristics of cancer.

Childhood Hematologic Malignancy Center

What Is Childhood Acute Myeloid Leukemia?

Acute myeloid leukemia, also called acute myelogenous leukemia or AML, is a type of blood cancer. It is a quickly progressing disease in which too many abnormal white blood cells are found in the bone marrow, the soft, spongy center of long bones.

In AML, myeloid stem cells (a type of blood stem cell) become immature white blood cells called myeloblasts or "blasts." These blasts do not become healthy white blood cells. Instead, they build up in the bone marrow, so there is less room for healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. In addition, these abnormal cells are unable to fight off infection.

  • AML may also be called myelogenous, granulocytic, myelocytic, or myeloblastic leukemia
  • AML accounts for about 20 percent of childhood leukemias
  • AML cells are most commonly found in the bone marrow and blood but can also appear in the spinal fluid and the skin
  • Rarely, AML cells can form into solid tumors called chloromas
  • The symptoms associated with AML usually occur over a short period of days to weeks

Children and teens with acute myeloid leukemia are treated by our experts at Dana-Farber/Boston Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders Center through the Childhood Leukemia Program.

Dana-Farber/Boston Children's offers a wide array of support services and programs for pediatric patients and their families during and after cancer treatment.

Symptoms of Childhood AML

Because leukemia is cancer of the blood-forming bone marrow, the initial symptoms are often related to abnormal bone marrow function. While each child may experience symptoms differently, some of the most common AML symptoms include:

  • Anemia: Leukemia frequently causes anemia because the bone marrow becomes too crowded with leukemia cells to produce normal red blood cells. Your child may appear tired or pale and may breathe faster to compensate for the decrease in their cells' ability to carry oxygen.
  • Bleeding and/or bruising: When the marrow is too crowded to allow platelets to be produced, your child may bruise more easily. You might notice petechiae (or tiny red dots) on the skin when a child has a low number of platelets. These are very small blood vessels that have "leaked" or bled. A blood count will show thrombocytopenia, a decreased number of platelets.
  • Recurrent infections: Although there may be an unusually high number of white blood cells on your child's blood count, these white blood cells are immature and do not fight infection. Your child may have had several viral or bacterial infections over the past few weeks and may show symptoms of an infection such as fever, runny nose, and cough.
  • Bone and joint pain: Your child may also experience pain in bones and joints. This pain is usually a result of the bone marrow being overcrowded and "full."
  • Abdominal pain: Stomach aches may also be a symptom of leukemia. Leukemia cells can collect in your child's kidney, liver, and spleen, causing enlargement of these organs. Pain in the abdomen may cause your child to lose his appetite and lose weight.

It's important to understand that the symptoms of leukemia may resemble other blood disorders or medical problems. These are common symptoms of the disease but do not include all possible symptoms. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

Risk Factors Associated With AML in Children

If your child has certain genetic syndromes, including Fanconi anemia, Bloom syndrome, Kostmann syndrome, and Down syndrome, he may be at a higher risk of developing AML than other children. Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) or other forms of bone marrow disease can also place your child at risk of developing AML, as can treatment for a previous cancer (though this is rare in children).

What Causes AML in Children?

In nearly all cases, it's not known what causes leukemia. In the majority of childhood leukemias, gene mutations and chromosome abnormalities in the leukemia cells occur sporadically (by chance). The abnormalities found in leukemia cells are not found in the other cells of the body.