Acute myeloid leukemia complications can result from the disease itself or treatments, such as chemotherapy. People may experience neurological symptoms, including headaches and light sensitivity, or physical symptoms, such as fever and weakness.

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is an aggressive cancer of the bone marrow and blood. It is the most common acute leukemia in adults.

Disease progression, blood vessel damage, and treatment side effects can all cause complications. These complications can be neurological or physical and vary depending on their cause.

Some symptoms, such as changes in mood and unusual swelling, can mean the cancer is spreading. People may want to be aware of these symptoms so they can contact their doctor.

Read more to learn about the different types of AML complications and their symptoms.

A person experiencing dizziness and fatigue, which are complications of AML.Share on Pinterest
Guille Faingold/Stocksy

AML does not typically cause neurological complications early in the disease. A 2017 study found that just 0.6% of people with AML had neurological symptoms at diagnosis.

People may experience neurological symptoms if:

  • the cancer has damaged their blood vessels
  • the cancer has spread to their brain
  • they are experiencing treatment side effects

Damaged blood vessels

Leukemia may damage blood vessels throughout the body, including those that affect blood flow to a person’s brain.

This can cause neurological problems. For example:

Leukostasis: This happens when a person has too many white blood cells, which can restrict blood flow. It can cause headaches, weakness, difficulty concentrating, confusion, and seizures.

Disseminated intravascular coagulation: This condition causes blood proteins to clump together, causing blood clots in the blood vessels. Symptoms often appear slowly and include confusion and excessive bleeding.

Brain metastases

As with other cancers, leukemia can metastasize or spread to other parts of the body. In some cases, it can spread to the brain or spinal cord.

Brain mets can cause changes in a person’s brain function, thinking, or mood, as well as:

  • headaches
  • light sensitivity
  • weakness in parts of the body
  • memory issues
  • sensory issues, such as difficulty seeing or hearing
  • vomiting or nausea
  • seizures

Treatment side effects

Chemotherapy and radiation are treatments for AML. Although they can kill cancer cells, they can also damage healthy cells.

This can affect a person’s brain function and mental health. Some symptoms include:

  • depression and mood changes
  • fatigue and brain fog
  • changes in memory or thinking
  • nerve damage

AML and its respective treatments can cause many different physical complications.

Primary leukemia, cancer spread, and treatments can all cause physical symptoms.

Complications of AML

Classic AML symptoms occur because a person’s blood and immune system are not working normally. They include:

  • fever
  • unexplained infections, or infections that do not go away
  • weakness
  • unexplained bleeding
  • paleness

Over time, their body may produce fewer and fewer healthy blood cells. Decreased red blood cell production can cause shortness of breath, weakness and dizziness. A decrease in working white blood cells can lead to severe infections.

Complications of AML spreading

Leukemia can spread to many areas of a person’s body. These include their brain and spinal cord, skin, and gums.

The specific complications a person can experience depend on where the cancer has spread. For example, cancer that spreads to the brain can cause problems with thinking and mood changes.

Complications of AML treatment

Chemotherapy is the primary treatment for AML. A person may also take targeted drugs, undergo radiation, or have a stem cell transplant.

Although treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy kill cancer cells, they can also kill healthy tissue, causing complications.

Some complications of chemotherapy include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • anemia
  • infection
  • nerve problems
  • fertility problems
  • urine, bladder, and kidney problems

Some radiation complications include:

  • damage to healthy tissue and organs
  • an increased risk of other cancers
  • pain in damaged areas of the body
  • skin issues, such as rashes
  • mouth sores
  • infertility
  • genetic mutations
  • changes in taste or smell

AML can metastasize, or spread, to other parts of the body. It can affect virtually any organ or organ system, including a person’s:

  • lymph nodes
  • liver
  • brain
  • spinal cord
  • spleen
  • testicles

When AML spreads, a person may notice new symptoms. These include:

  • changes in mood or thinking
  • swollen or painful lymph nodes
  • unusual swelling or pain in any area of their body, such as the testicles
  • digestive changes
  • upper abdominal pain

People who think they have AML, or think their AML may be spreading, should contact a doctor. Most people notice symptoms 4–6 weeks before diagnosis.

A person who feels sick, suddenly gets frequent infections, or struggles to recover from minor infections may have leukemia or a disease affecting the immune system.

People with AML may want to contact their doctor if they:

  • experience severe chemotherapy side effects or have serious complications
  • develop new symptoms
  • have symptoms that indicate their cancer may be spreading
  • experience neurological symptoms
  • develop any sign of infection

Living with AML or any form of cancer can be difficult. People should know that although the unpredictability of AML and its complications are challenging, support is available.

Some strategies for the person to consider include:

  • Telling loved ones how they can be supportive. For example, it may be helpful to set up a meal train or seek childcare from loved ones.
  • Openly discussing prognosis with a doctor and asking for everything to be clearly explained.
  • Talking about end-of-life options with loved ones.
  • Contacting a psychotherapist who specializes in serious illness.
  • Joining a support group.

Learn more about coping with a cancer diagnosis.

AML is an aggressive bone marrow cancer that can cause various physical and neurological complications. The disease itself, cancer spread, and treatment can all cause complications.

People experiencing complications should contact their doctor. There may be treatment options to help manage their symptoms.

Living with any form of cancer, including AML, can be incredibly difficult. People may want to contact a psychotherapist or support group.