The side effects caused by treatment for acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) vary depending on the therapy.
Side Effects of Chemotherapy
The chemotherapy treatment for AML has some unpleasant side effects. Because chemotherapy drugs destroy many of your healthy cells as they kill off the cancerous ones, you are at greater risk for anemia, infection and bleeding. The specific side effects depend on the type and dose of drugs and the length of time you receive them. The most common side effects include:
- Hair loss
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Mouth sores
- Easy bruising
Treatment for AML is often given in the hospital. However, with the advent of less-toxic therapies, particularly for older patients, therapy can often be given in the outpatient setting. Currently, for example, patients over age 60 with untreated AML are treated as outpatients. Regardless of where you are treated, the following steps are often recommended to reduce your risk of infections:
- Most importantly, being conscientious about washing your hands and encouraging hand washing among those around you
- Avoiding uncooked fruits and vegetables that may carry germs
- Avoiding potential molds found on fresh flowers and plants
- Avoiding people who you know are sick
- Avoiding large crowds of people
- Wearing a surgical face mask when out in public
- Taking prophylactic antibiotics
Throughout treatment, you will be monitored for signs of infection, low blood cell counts and anemia. Antibiotics may be given to combat infections, or blood transfusions may be given to reverse anemia. When serious side effects occur, adjustments to your chemotherapy regimen may be made.
Patients who have a very high number of leukemic cells before beginning treatment may experience tumor lysis syndrome. As the chemotherapy drugs kill the leukemic cells, they split open and spill their contents into the bloodstream. To combat this side effect, your doctor may give you extra fluid during treatment as well as additional drugs to help rid your body of these unwanted substances.
Chemotherapy may damage vital organs (kidneys, liver, testes, ovaries, heart, and lungs). During therapy, you will be closely monitored to ensure that your organs continue to function properly.
Side Effects and Complications of Bone Marrow Transplant
Bone marrow transplant is is an effective and life-saving procedure that has helped countless patients survive AML, but complications do occur. Some of the side effects and complications occur shortly after the procedure, while others show up months or years after the transplant.
Common short-term side effects include the following:
- Increased risk of infection from bacteria, viruses and fungi
- Low red blood cell and platelet counts
Possible long-term complications include the following:
- Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD)
- Lung damage
- Damage to the thyroid gland
- Severe bone damage
Side Effects of ATRA Treatment for APL
Treatment for acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) with all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) sometimes results in retinoic acid syndrome, which can cause low blood pressure, difficulty breathing due to fluid build-up in the lungs, and kidney damage. Stopping the ATRA and beginning a course of steroids effectively treats retinoic acid syndrome.
Of course, the side effects of treatment cannot be ignored, but their seriousness must be weighed against the goal of complete remission from AML. Always talk with your doctor about any concerns you have. Many of the side effects can be treated, and most will disappear when treatment ends.