Acute Myeloid Leukemia

What is Leukemia?

Leukemias are cancers that start in cells that would normally develop into different types of blood cells. It is a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues, including the bone marrow and the lymphatic system. Most often, leukemia starts in early forms of white blood cells, but some leukemias start in other blood cell types.

There are several types of leukemia, which are divided based mainly on whether the leukemia is acute (fast growing) or chronic (slower growing), and whether it starts in myeloid cells or lymphoid cells. The main types of leukemia include:

  • Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)
  • Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)
  • Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)
  • Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML)
  • Other – Other, rarer types of leukemia exist, including hairy cell leukemia, myelodysplastic syndromes and myeloproliferative disorders

In this article we will be focusing on Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) since it is the most frequent acute leukemia in adulthood.

What is Acute Myeloid Leukemia?

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a cancer of the blood in which the bone marrow makes abnormal cells. The “acute” in Acute Myeloid Leukemia denotes the disease’s rapid progression In AML, myeloid stem cells usually mature into abnormal myeloblasts, or white blood cells. But, they sometimes become abnormal red blood cells or platelets. As they multiply, they overwhelm the normal cells in the bone marrow and blood. The cancer cells can also spread to other parts of the body.

This type of cancer usually gets worse quickly if it is not treated. It is the most common type of acute leukemia in adults. AML can also be referred to as:

  • Acute myelogenous leukemia
  • Acute myeloblastic leukemia
  • Acute granulocytic leukemia
  • Acute nonlymphocytic leukemia

Types of Acute Myeloid Leukemia

Knowing the subtype of AML can be very important, as it sometimes affects both a patient’s outlook and the best treatment. Most types of AML are based on how mature (developed) the cancer cells are at the time of diagnosis and how different they are from normal cells. The different types of AML include:

The French-American-British (FAB) Classification

  • M0 – Undifferentiated acute myeloblastic leukemia
  • M1 – Acute myeloblastic leukemia with minimal maturation
  • M2 – Acute myeloblastic leukemia with maturation
  • M3 – Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL)
  • M4 – Acute myelomonocytic leukemia
  • M4 eos – Acute myelomonocytic leukemia with eosinophilia
  • M5 – Acute monocytic leukemia
  • M6 – Acute erythroid leukemia
  • M7 – Acute megakaryoblastic leukemia

World Health Organization (WHO) Classification

  • AML with recurrent genetic abnormalities, meaning with specific chromosomal changes
  • AML with multilineage dysplasia, or abnormalities in how the blood cells look
  • AML, related to therapy that is damaging to cells, also called therapy-related myeloid neoplasm
  • AML that is not otherwise categorized
  • Myeloid sarcoma
  • Myeloid proliferations related to Down Syndrome
  • Undifferentiated or biphenotypic acute leukemias


AML can also be classified by the cytogenetic, or chromosome, changes found in the leukemia cells. Changes in certain chromosomes help diagnose cancer, plan treatment, or find out how well treatment is working. Chromosomal changes are commonly grouped according to the likelihood that treatment will work against the subtype of AML.

All chromosomes are numbered from 1 to 22. And, sex chromosomes are called “X” or “Y.” The letters “p” and “q” refer to the “arms” or specific areas of the chromosome. Some of the types of genetic changes found in AML include:

  • A translocation, which means that a chromosome breaks off and reattaches to another chromosome
  • Extra copies of a chromosome
  • A deletion of a chromosome

Some of the most common chromosomal changes are grouped as follows:

  • Favorable. Chromosomal changes associated with more successful treatment include abnormalities of chromosome 16 at bands p13 and q22 [t(16;16)(p13;q22), inv(16)(p13q22)] and a translocation between chromosomes 8 and 21 [t(8;21)].
  • Intermediate. Changes associated with a less favorable prognosis include normal chromosomes, where no changes are found and a translocation between chromosomes 9 and 11 [t(9;11)]. Many other subtypes are considered part of this group, particularly those with 1 or more specific molecular changes. Sometimes, extra copies of chromosome 8 or trisomy 8 may be classified as intermediate risk over unfavorable (see below).
  • Unfavorable. Examples of chromosomal changes that are associated with less successful treatment or with a low chance of curing the AML include extra copies of chromosomes 8 or 13 [for example, trisomy 8 (+8)], deletion of all or part of chromosomes 5 or 7, complex changes on many chromosomes, and changes to chromosome 3 at band q26.

Symptoms of AML

The signs and symptoms of AML vary based on the type of blood cell affected. They are generally nonspecific and warrant investigations for proper diagnosis. The signs and symptoms of AML are:

  • Fever
  • Pain in bones and joints
  • Pale skin
  • Easy bruising and contusions
  • Recurrent infections
  • Unusual bleeding, epistaxis, bleeding gums

Causes and Risk Factors for AML

Although the cause of AML is not known, several factors are associated with an increased risk of the disease. The following factors may raise a person’s risk of developing AML:

  • Age – AML is becomes more common as people get older
  • Being Male – AML is more common in males than in females
  • Smoking – Cancer-causing substances in tobacco smoke are absorbed by the lungs and spread through the bloodstream to many parts of the body
  • Genetics – Researchers are finding that leukemia may run in a family due to inherited gene mutation
  • Chemicals – Long-term exposure to chemicals like benzene, found in petroleum, cigarette smoke, and industrial workplaces, raises the risk of AML
  • Previous Cancer Treatment – People who have received chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy for other types of cancer, such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and lymphoma, have a higher risk of developing AML in the years following treatment.
  • Other Bone Marrow Disorders – People who have other bone marrow diseases can develop AML over time

How is Acute Myeloid Leukemia Diagnosed?

No screening exams exist for leukemia.

Doctors often discover that a person has chronic leukemia through routine blood testing. They may also rely on their experience and current knowledge of the disease.

If your doctor suspects you may have leukemia, he or she will order specific diagnostic tests such as a:

  • Blood test
  • Bone marrow biopsy
  • Spinal tap
  • Genomic testing

Is Acute Myeloid Leukemia Hereditary?

Leukemia does not usually run in families, so in most cases, it is not hereditary. However, people can inherit genetic abnormalities that increase their risk of developing this form of cancer.

For example having a family history of other blood disorders increases your risk of getting AML. These disorders include:

  • Polycythemia Vera
  • Essential Thrombocythemia
  • Idiopathic myelofibrosis.

Some syndromes that are caused by genetic mutations (abnormal changes) present at birth seem to raise the risk of AML. These include:

  • Down syndrome
  • Ataxia telangiectasia
  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome
  • Klinefelter syndrome
  • Fanconi anemia
  • Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome
  • Bloom syndrome
  • Familial Platelet Disorder syndrome

Newly Diagnosed AML Advice from an Expert

Dr. Elizabeth Bowhay-Carnes of UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center provides advice for patients facing an AML diagnosis, including:

  • Understand who your care team is including the main attending physician and the main nursing contact/support person would be
  • Designate a family member or friend to play the main supportive role

Preparing for Your AML Appointment

Your first appointment can be overwhelming and can be hard to grasp the realistic expectations of life during the AML treatment phase. Here are some tips and tricks to prepare you for your first appointment:

  • Write down any and all questions you have before coming to the doctor’s office
  • Bring a notepad to the appointment to jot down notes about what is said during the appointment or ask if you can record your visit
  • Consider your values and expectations of your quality of life
  • Keep copies of your medical records
  • Bring a friend or a family member to your appointments to help you retain all the information discusses
  • Consider all your treatment options, including any clinical trials available to you

Treating Acute Myeloid Leukemia

Treatment of AML depends on several factors, including the subtype of the disease, your age, your overall health and your preferences. The types of treatment include:

  • Chemotherapy – the primary treatment options that uses chemicals to kill cancer cells
  • Targeted therapy – medications that target cancer cells, but don’t affect healthy cells. This type of treatment usually has less side effects
  • Other drug therapy
  • Stem Cell transplant – also called a bone marrow transplant, helps re-establish health stem cells by replacing unhealthy bone marrow with leukemia-free stem cells that will regenerate health bone marrow
  • Clinical trials – can involve therapy with new drugs and new drug combinations or new approaches to stem cell transplantation

it is often a good idea to seek a second opinion. A second opinion can give you more information and help you feel more confident about the treatment plan you choose.

What You Can Expect From AML Treatment

Based on your treatment options that you have discussed with your care team, it Is important you understand how treatment may affect you. Some things you should discuss with your care team and loved ones include:

  • Your personal goals and values
  • Results you can expect
  • Potential side effects
  • Palliative care
  • How treatment may affect your life
  • The financial costs of treatment

Recovery and Survival

Leukemia represents 3.5 percent of all new cancer cases in the United States, and it is the seventh leading cause of cancer death. The outlook for leukemia patients depends on which type of leukemia they have, their overall health, and their age.

In the case of AML, it makes up 32% of all adult leukemia cases and there will be about 19,940 new cases of AML in the United States this year. Remission in AML is usually defined when the bone marrow contains fewer than 5% blast cells. For most types of AML, about 2 out of 3 people with AML who get standard treatment go into remission. The 5-year survival rate for people 20 and older with AML is about 25%. For people younger than 20, the survival rate is 67%.


“Treatment.” Acute Myeloid Leukemia Treatment | Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, 26 Feb. 2015,

“Adult Acute Myeloid Leukemia Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version.” National Cancer Institute,

“Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) Subtypes and Prognostic Factors.” American Cancer Society,

“Leukemia – Acute Myeloid – AML – Subtypes.” Cancer.Net, 18 Aug. 2017,

“Leukemia Types, Symptoms, and Treatments.” UPMC HIllman Cancer Center,

“Treating Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML).” American Cancer Society,

“Acute Myelogenous Leukemia.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 27 Dec. 2017,

“Treatment Response Rates for Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML).” American Cancer Society,

“Leukemia – Acute Myeloid – AML – Statistics.” Cancer.Net, 19 Feb. 2020,

A Look at Leukemia

What is Leukemia?

As with many other cancers, leukemia is not a singular disease. There are many types of leukemia, and while it is a common childhood cancer, leukemia actually occurs more often in older adults. Leukemia is the most common cancer in people under the age of 15, but it is most likely to affect people who are 55 or older. There are more than 60,000 cases of adult leukemia diagnosed each year, and it is more common among men than women. 

Leukemia is a broad term that describes cancer of the blood or bone marrow. It starts when the DNA of developing blood cells are damaged and the bone marrow makes abnormal cells. The abnormal blood cells are the leukemia cells which grow and divide uncontrollably. Unlike healthy cells that follow a life cycle, the leukemia cells don’t die when they are supposed to so they continue to build up, eventually overcrowding the blood. They crowd out normal white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets so those normal cells can’t grow and function. Eventually, there are more cancer cells than healthy cells in the blood. The type of leukemia is determined based on which blood cells are affected by the abnormal cells. Leukemia usually affects the white blood cells, called leukocytes, but can occur in other blood cells. There are four main types of leukemia: chronic, acute, lymphocytic, and myelogenous.

Leukemia that grows slowly is called chronic leukemia. The cancer cells form very slowly so the body can also continue to form healthy cells, but over time the cancer cells continue to grow and the leukemia worsens. 

Acute leukemia grows very quickly and gets worse really fast. It has been identified as the most rapidly progressing cancer, and it can develop and grow in a matter of days or weeks.

Lymphocytic leukemia forms in the part of the bone marrow that makes lymphocytes, which are white blood cells that are also immune cells. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is most common in older adults and makes up about 25 percent of adult leukemia cases. It is more common in men than women and is very rare in children. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) also affects older adults, but children younger than five have the highest risk of developing it.

Myelogenous leukemia forms in the bone marrow cells that produce blood cells, rather than forming in the actual blood cells. Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) accounts for about 15 percent of all leukemia cases in the United States. CML develops mostly in adults and is very rare in children. Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) is a rare cancer that develops quickly with symptoms of fever, difficulty breathing, and pain in the joints. It can be caused by environmental factors, and develops more often in adults than children, and more often in men than women.

There are also several less common types of leukemia. Most of these types are chronic, and each year in the United States, about 6,000 cases of these less common leukemias are diagnosed.

  • Chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML) develops from myeloid cells.
  • Juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia (JMML) is typically found in very young children and is another type of myeloid leukemia.
  • Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) is a subtype of AML.
  • Hairy cell leukemia is slow growing, chronic, and makes too many B cells that appear hairy wen viewed under a microscope.

Leukemia Possible Risk Factors

There are several risk factors linked to leukemia. There are environmental factors and genetic reasons why some people might develop leukemia. Some of the factors can be controlled while others can not. Age, smoking history, and exposure to hazardous chemicals are all possible risk factors. Other risk factors may include exposure to chemicals or medical treatments, personal health history, and family history. Some of the possible risk factors need more study to determine a definite link to leukemia, but being aware of your potential risk is important.

If you were exposed to chemotherapy or radiation therapy for another cancer you have a higher chance of getting leukemia later in life. Also, children who took medications to suppress their immune systems, such as after an organ transplant, may develop leukemia. Exposure to chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde, often found in cleaning products, hair dyes, and embalming fluid, may also increase your risk of developing leukemia. Smoking and exposure to workplace chemicals like gasoline, diesel and pesticides could also be a risk factor.

There are several syndromes, conditions, and genetic disorders that can also increase leukemia risk. Li-Fraumeni syndrome, a hereditary disorder, is linked to leukemia, and children with Down syndrome have a two to three percent increased risk of developing acute myeloid or acute lymphocytic leukemia. Other genetic disorders that increase leukemia risk are Fanconi anemia, and dyskeratosis congenita (DKC). The inherited immune system conditions ataxia-telangiectasia, Bloom syndrome, Schwachmai-Diamond syndrome, and Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome also increase the risk of leukemia. Risk is also increased in patients with a history of blood disorders such as myelodysplastic syndrome, myeloproliferative neoplasm, and aplastic anemia. There are also viruses, such as the human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV-1), linked to leukemia.

Family history can also play a role in the development of leukemia. Having a sibling with leukemia is a risk factor, and having an identical twin with leukemia gives you a one in five chance of developing it yourself.

Preventing Leukemia

There are no known ways to prevent leukemia; however, being aware of risk factors and attempting to reduce them could help. Studies have linked leukemia to smoking and obesity, so quitting smoking and having a healthy body weight could help prevent leukemia. In addition, avoiding heavy exposure to dangerous chemicals might decrease your risk.

Signs and Symptoms

There are no reliable early screening methods for leukemia and, especially in chronic leukemia, the symptoms may not be very noticeable early on. Symptoms such as fatigue and fever may not be alarming at first, and could be mistakenly attributed to other causes. Acute leukemia symptoms come on faster and are typically more noticeable. All types of leukemia can have similar symptoms, but the symptoms each individual patient has can help determine the type of leukemia. Any symptoms should be checked by a doctor.

The most common symptoms of leukemia are:

  • Extreme fatigue that doesn’t respond to a good night sleep
  • Enlarged lymph nodes that are swollen and tender as a result of leukemia cells building up
  • Unexplained fever higher than 101 degrees that occurs frequently or lasts more than three weeks with no explanation
  • Night sweats that can also occur during the day, and can drench the sheets through to the mattress
  • Bruising and excess bleeding such as frequent nose bleeds caused by poor blood clotting which is also a symptom
  • Poor blood clotting is apparent when small red or purple spots, called petechiae, appear
  • Abdominal pain occurs when white blood cells accumulate in the liver or spleen
  • Bone and joint pain usually occurs in the hips or sternum where there is a lot of bone marrow that is being crowded by abnormal cells
  • Headaches and other neurological symptoms such as seizures, dizziness, visual changes, nausea, vomiting can occur due to leukemia cells in the fluid around the brain and spinal cord
  • Unintentional weight loss of five percent or more of your body weight in 12 months or less. Weight loss can sometimes be a result of having a swollen liver or spleen which can lead to loss of appetite
  • Frequent infections occur because white blood cells aren’t working properly to fight infections
  • Anemia, or iron deficiency, occurs when there is a lack of hemoglobin in the blood to transport iron in the body. Iron deficiency can cause labored breathing and pale skin. Symptoms of anemia are nausea, fever, chills, night sweats, flu-like symptoms, weight loss, bone pain, and tiredness

Complications from Leukemia

Leukemia can cause several serious complications due to the nature of the disease and treatment. Complications such as life-threatening infections can occur when white blood cells are damaged or reduced. When white blood cells aren’t fully functioning, the body can’t properly fight infections, so any infections a leukemia patient gets, such as urinary tract infections or pneumonia, can become very serious. Low platelet counts make bleeding in areas such as the brain, the lungs, and the stomach or intestines very dangerous, while high white blood cell counts can cause leukemia cells to spill over from the blood into other organs possibly causing respiratory failure, stroke, or heart attack.

There are other complications that are related to specific types of leukemia. Notably, the development of secondary cancers and blood cancers are more likely in CLL patients. Another complication of CLL is called a Richter transformation in which the cells can transform into an aggressive form of lymphoma. Kidney failure can be a treatment-related complication of AML or ALL.

Leukemia Diagnosis 

Leukemia can’t be diagnosed based solely on symptoms, but if leukemia is suspected, in a general exam, the doctor will look for an enlarged spleen or liver and take a blood sample. Further diagnostic testing may include a bone marrow test where a long needle is used to extract marrow from the center of a bone (usually the hip). The bone marrow test will help determine if the patient has leukemia and the type of leukemia.

Staging Leukemia

Staging is used to identify the size and location of cancer in the body. Typically cancers have four stages with Stage I usually indicating the cancer is in one location and is not very large. Stage IV indicates the cancer has grown large and spread far from the original location. Most leukemias aren’t usually staged because they are in the blood and therefore have already spread throughout the body. Instead, leukemia can be considered untreated, active, in remission, or recurrent. The exception is CLL, which can spread through the lymph nodes or the blood or bone marrow, so it does have three stages.


The earlier treatment starts for leukemia, the better chance of remission. However, thanks to some exceptional advancements in leukemia treatment medications, doctors are often able to take the time they need to come up with the best treatment plan for each individual with leukemia, even in cases of acute leukemia if life-threatening complications are not present. When coming up with a treatment plan, doctors consider the patient’s age, overall health, and most importantly, the type of leukemia the patient has.

Leukemia treatment options vary for each type of cancer:

Watchful Waiting is used when treatment for slower growing leukemias, such as CLL, may not be necessary;

Chemotherapy is the primary treatment for AML, and sometimes a bone marrow transplant is needed;

Targeted therapies are medications that are tyrosine kinase inhibitors which target cancer cells, but don’t affect healthy cells. Targeted therapies have less side effects. Many CML patients have a gene mutation that responds very well to targeted therapy;

Interferon therapy is a drug that acts similar to a naturally occurring immune response which slows and then stops the leukemia cells. This therapy can cause severe side effects;

Radiation therapy is often used in ALL to kill bone marrow tissue before a transplant is done;

Surgery to remove the spleen may be necessary, depending on the type of leukemia;

Stem cell transplant is effective in treating CML and is usually more successful in younger patients. After chemotherapy or radiation or both are used to destroy the bone marrow, new stem cells are implanted into the bone marrow so noncancerous cells can grow.

Treatment for acute leukemia can take up to two years. It is usually done in phases. In the first phase the goal is to use chemotherapy for several weeks to kill the cancer cells and put the patient in remission. The second phase is designed to kill any remaining cancer cells using chemotherapy or stem cell transplant or both. The treatments and their side effects can be pretty harsh for older patients so researchers have been focusing on finding targeted therapies for acute leukemia, which have fewer side effects. Researchers are also hoping CAR T-cell therapy, which uses the patient’s own immune system to treat cancer, could be an eventual replacement for stem cell replacement therapy in older ALL patients. AML is more aggressive and often harder to treat, but several new targeted medications have been approved to treat AML. Researchers continue to look at other targeted therapy options and other drugs for AML.

In some cases of chronic leukemia, a stem cell transplant might be required, but the main treatment is oral medications that patients will probably take for the rest of their lives. Some research is investigating whether or not patients could potentially stop taking the medications at a certain point. 

CML treatments have really advanced and there are now several drugs that target the abnormal protein that causes CML. Thanks to these targeted medications CML patients now have a close to normal life expectancy and a 90 percent five-year survival rate. Clinical trials are looking at using targeted therapies to treat CLL as well and CAR T-cell therapies are also being considered for CLL treatment.

Recovery and Survival

Leukemia represents 3.5 percent of all new cancer cases in the United States, and it is the seventh leading cause of cancer death. The outlook for leukemia patients depends on which type of leukemia they have, their overall health, and their age. Leukemia is more likely to be fatal in older patients. The average age of those who die from leukemia is 75. However, the many advances in treatment options and medications, such as targeted therapies, have created a better prognosis for many. Leukemia has a 62.7 percent five-year survival rate, and some people with leukemia can now achieve complete remission.


Felman, Adam. “What to Know About Leukemia” Medical News Today, medically reviewed August 28, 2019, Accessed March 9, 2020.

Raymaakers, Karen. “Symptoms of Leukemia” Verywell Health, medically reviewed November 1, 2019, Accessed March 9, 2020.

“Adult Leukemia: What You Need to Know” Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, updated December 5, 2019, Accessed March 9, 2020.

Wang, Eunice. “How Fast Does Leukemia Develop” Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, October 4, 2018, Accessed March 9, 2020.

“Reducing Your Risk for Leukemia” Canadian Cancer Society Accessed March 9, 2020.

“Risk Factors for Leukemia” Canadian Cancer Society Accessed March 9, 2020.

Stöppler, Melissa Conrad. “Leukemia” MedicineNet, medically reviewed September 11, 2019, Accessed March 9, 2020.

“Leukemia Screening” Moffitt Cancer Center Accessed March 9, 2020.

“Leukemia — Patient Version” National Cancer Institute Accessed March 9, 2020.

“Cancer Stat Facts — Leukemia” National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program Accessed March 9, 2020.

“Advances in Leukemia Research” National Cancer Institute, June 25, 2019, Accessed March 9, 2020.

AML Research: What’s New in Treatment?

AML Research: What’s New in Treatment? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 AML expert, Dr. Jessica Altman, discusses the future of AML research, and new learnings that continue to improve current treatment approaches.

Dr. Jessica Altman is Director of the Acute Leukemia Program at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. More about Dr. Altman here.

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Are there any new treatments on the horizon that you can talk about, Dr. Altman?

Dr. Altman: 

Absolutely. So, I love to talk about new therapies in AML. Until the last couple of years – it had been 40 years since we approved a sustained treatment in the marketplace in AML. We had been treating the disease the same. And over the last couple of years there have been a growth of therapies. We’re now trying to sort out exactly when we’re using one over another. We also have clinical trials where we’re combining novel therapies for adults with either newly diagnosed disease or relapsed and refractory disease. 

We are in an era of looking out at antibody therapy in AML – that’s one of the new waves of treatment. We are still exploring targeting therapies in the sense of inhibition of FLT3, IDH, and other mutations. So, it’s an era where there’s lots of excitement, and I’m hopeful for our patients.


Yeah. Tell me what makes you most hopeful about the future of research in this area, and treatment?

Dr. Altman: 

So, I think that’s a great question. I think the fact that we now – the deeper the understanding we have of the biology of the AML, why AML happens, what mutations drive the disease, and then how to target those mutations with individual therapies is what excites me the most. So, our basic science research has exploded, and that occurs at a very quick pace, and that’s allowing us to develop therapies at a much faster rate than I would have anticipated before.


What a wonderful way to end our chat. Thank you so much, Dr. Altman, for taking the time to join us today.

Dr. Altman: 

It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much.

Misconceptions in Clinical Trials: What’s Fact and What’s Fiction?

Misconceptions in Clinical Trials: What’s Fact and What’s Fiction? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

AML expert, Dr. Jessica Altman, addresses common misconceptions patients have about clinical trials regarding treatments, regulations, and standards of care. Want to learn more? Download the Program Resource Guide here.

Dr. Jessica Altman is Director of the Acute Leukemia Program at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. More about Dr. Altman here.

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What about clinical trials? What common misconceptions do patients have about enrolling in trials?

Dr. Altman: 

So, I think the misconceptions regarding clinical trials can be very masked. And I think it really depends on the intent of a clinical trial and the phase of the clinical trial. I think that a well-designed clinical trial is almost always the right choice for a patient with acute leukemia at any stage in their therapy. 

That is a bias as a clinical trialist. I think it’s the right bias, but it is still my bias. I think patients frequently worry that they’re being treated as a guinea pig, or they’re not getting an appropriate treatment. What I can tell you is the clinical trials that we and my colleagues across the country and across the world participate in are clinical trials where the patients are getting at least what we consider a standard of care for that phase of their disease, and they may be getting something in addition to that or something that is slightly different, but expected to have a similar response rate. 

We have this phrase in clinical trials, something called equipoise, that if there’s a randomization between options that we need to feel, as the practitioner and as the clinical trialist, that each option is at least as good as the other.  


That kind of goes back to the vetting of treatments before they go to a clinical trial. Tell me a little bit about history. How can we make patients feel more comfortable?

Dr. Altman: 

I want to make sure that I understand the question.


So, how thoroughly are treatments vetted before they go to a clinical trial?

Dr. Altman: 

Great. So, the way that agents get into early phase clinical trials and then later phase studies are these are compounds that have been studied in the laboratory, then studied in small animals, then larger animals. And then, frequently, a drug is started in a patient with relapsed and refractory Acute Myeloid Leukemia and found to be safe – that’s what we call a Phase I study. 

Once we know the right dose and the associated side effects from an early phase clinical trial, later phase studies – i.e. Phase II, where the goal is to determine the efficacy and response rate is conducted. And then, if that appears and looks like it’s promising, a larger, randomized, three-phase study is frequently conducted, where we compare a standard of care to the new approach. 


So, patients should be comfortable that the clinical trial that they’re going through has been thoroughly vetted, has gone through multiple stages before human trials occur?

Dr. Altman: 

That is accurate in terms of compounds get through animal studies, and then depending on the way that the trial is being connected, will then be studied in patients either with relapsed or refractory disease or very high-risk disease. But it’s also very important to mention that these pharmaceutical companies and physicians are not making these decisions alone. 

The clinical trials are all reviewed by scientific review committees through the cancer centers, which are other investigators making sure that everything appears appropriate. In addition, there are institutional review boards at every university whose goal it is to keep patients and research subjects in well-done clinical trials safe. That is their primary goal. And the IRBs – institutional review boards – are very involved with making sure that clinical trials are appropriate and that the conduct of clinical trials is appropriate.

Addressing Common Myths About AML Treatment

Addressing Common Myths About AML Treatment from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

AML expert, Dr. Jessica Altman, discusses common myths surrounding available AML treatment options, stem cell transplant and how leukemias are classified.

Dr. Jessica Altman is Director of the Acute Leukemia Program at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. More about Dr. Altman here.

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Dr. Altman, let’s talk about some AML treatment myths floating around. I’ll throw some stuff out there, you let me know if you’ve heard this. “Leukemia is one disease.”

Dr. Altman: 

So, I have heard that. Leukemia is actually a number of different diseases, and it’s very heterogenous. There are acute and chronic leukemias. The acute versus chronic really depends on a couple of factors. The biologic factor is the presence or absence of 20% loss or more in the bone marrow, but that also coincides with how patients present clinically. Acute leukemias tend to present more acutely, more rapidly. And chronic leukemias tend to be a bit more indirect. And the treatments are very different for those entities. 

There are also myeloid or lymphoid leukemias, so there’s Chronic Myeloid Leukemia and Acute Myeloid Leukemia and Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia and Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. So, those are the four major categories. We’re talking about Acute Myeloid Leukemia today. Within Acute Myeloid Leukemia, there are multiple different types of Acute Myeloid Leukemia that are really now best categorized by history – patient history – and the molecular and cytogenetic abnormalities of the disease. 


Now, we’ve already learned about a bunch of them. So, “There are limited treatment options” is definitely a myth. Correct, Dr. Altman?

Dr. Altman: 

So, we have had a major growth of the number of treatment options available for Acute Myeloid Leukemia really in the last couple of years. It’s been a very exciting time for practitioners and for our patients that we have now a number of new therapies. So, there is not just one treatment available. In fact, the conversation regarding treatment options becomes quite extensive with patients and their families, because there are choices. And that’s why consideration of goals in the intent of treatment becomes even more important. 


Here’s another one: “Stem cell transplant – the only chance for cure.”

  Stem Cell Transplant, also called a bone marrow transplant, is a procedure in which healthy blood stem cells are used to replace damaged or diseased bone marrow. This procedure can be used to treat certain types of blood cancers.

Dr. Altman: 

Okay. So, that is also a myth. There are certain types of Acute Myeloid Leukemia where stem cell transplant is the most appropriate treatment once the disease is in remission if the goal of the patient is of curative intent. Stem cell transplant is not appropriate for every individual, and for some types of Acute Myeloid Leukemia, stem cell transplant is not considered. 


What kinds of things do you think about when you’re considering a stem cell transplant with a patient? 

Dr. Altman: 

So, again, I go back to patient goals and understanding their goals of treatment. A stem cell transplant is among the most medically intensive procedures that we have. It is also not just a treatment that occurs over a short time. While the actual transplant is a relatively limited hospitalization and the administration and infusion of stem cells and preparative chemotherapy, it is something that can continue to have side effects and alterations in life quality that can persist for months to years afterwards. 

So, that’s one aspect of things that we talk about regarding stem cell transplant. And really understanding what the benefit of transplant is in terms of a survival advantage, versus what the risk and the cost in terms of toxicities are. And that’s the basis of a lot of the conversations we have.


Sure. Here’s one more: “AML patients require immediate treatment.”

Dr. Altman: 

Sometimes AML patients require immediate treatment, and sometimes they don’t. And that depends on the biology of the disease. How high is the white blood count when the patient comes in? What are the best of the blood counts? Is the patient having immediate life-threatening complications of their acute leukemia? 

And there’s some forms of acute leukemia that require immediate therapy to prevent complications, and there’s some forms of acute leukemia who present an extreme distress from their disease, but there are many patients who present with acute leukemia, and we have time to get all of the ancillary studies back – the studies of genetics and the molecular studies1 – to help further refine the conversation, and further design an appropriate treatment strategy. 


What else? What do you hear from your patients that you feel is maybe a misconception or something they’re not quite understanding about the AML?

Dr. Altman: 

So, I think one of the biggest things that I would like to mention is that response rate and cure are not the same. So, it is possible for one to be treated for Acute Myeloid Leukemia and the disease to enter remission, and yet still not be cured of their disease. 

Acute Myeloid Leukemia is a disease that frequently requires additional cycles of treatment or a stem cell transplant after the initial induction therapy to be able to have the best chance for a long-term cure. So, response and cure are not the same thing.

Acute Myeloid Leukemia: Your AML, Your Treatment, Your Decision

Acute Myeloid Leukemia: Your AML, Your Treatment, Your Decision from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

AML experts Dr. Pinkal Desai, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and Assistant Attending Physician at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital, and Dr. Tapan M. Kadia Associate Professor, Department of Leukemia at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, share research-based insight on how AML is diagnosed, including the symptoms and recommended tests, and disease management strategies.
These experts give an overview of currently approved AML therapies and share clinical trial updates on treatments in development. The panel discusses AML management and how you can ask questions and talk to your doctor to feel confident with your care. Additionally, you will hear from an AML patient who shares their experience and advice for approaching the decision-making process.

AML Research and Internet Claims Program Resource Guide

Download This Guide


Download This Guide

Understanding and Managing AML Treatment Side Effects

Understanding and Managing AML Treatment Side Effects from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

AML expert, Dr. Jessica Altman, discusses how AML affects the body, and the common side effects patients may experience during varying AML treatment phases.  

Dr. Jessica Altman is Director of the Acute Leukemia Program at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. More about Dr. Altman here.

See More From The Fact or Fiction? AML Series

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AML Treatment and Side Effects Program Resource Guide



Dr. Altman, let’s talk about some common AML treatment side effects. What are some of the things that patients can expect when they begin treatment?

Dr. Altman: 

So, the side effects depend in part on the actual treatment strategy that’s utilized. It’s also important to note that AML itself has symptoms, and so sometimes it’s hard to separate out the symptoms of the Acute Myeloid Leukemia and the symptoms from the treatment. Acute Myeloid Leukemia is a disease where the bone marrow is not functioning normally. The bone marrow is responsible for making healthy red blood cells, healthy white blood cells, healthy platelets, and also is very intimately involved with the immune system. 

And so, patients with Acute Myeloid Leukemia by itself without treatment are at risk for fatigue if the hemoglobin is low, bleeding and bruising when the platelet count is low, and at risk for infections. 

Also, shortness of breath and other side effects from having abnormal blood counts. In addition, the treatment frequently lowers the blood counts further, and the treatment itself increases those risks associated with low blood counts. Patients can be supported with blood transfusions. Patients are also supported with antimicrobial therapy to prevent infections, and if fever or infections occur despite that, patients receive additional antimicrobial therapy based on what the perceived organism is. 

Patients with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, when they receive chemotherapy, are also sometimes at risk for something called tumor lysis syndrome. 

That’s when we kill the leukemia cells, when the leukemia cells are killed quickly, sometimes the contents of the leukemia cells can inflame the kidneys and lead to alterations in the electrolytes and the acids and salts in the body, and that’s something that needs to be monitored for and prevented. 

Patients with Acute Myeloid Leukemia who receive chemotherapy are also at risk for organ inflammation, and that is something that is monitored with the blood counts.


What can patients or their caregivers suggest to help manage some of these side effects?

Dr. Altman:    

So, I think the biggest side effect that might be the hardest for us to manage and for patients to manage is fatigue. And I’m a believer that energy begets energy, and so trying to be as active as one can throughout all phases of their treatment I think helps the most. And also, the hopeful recognition that the fatigue should be self-limited, and that with time away from treatment, the energy should improve.

I think that’s one of the biggest things I hear from my patients.

AML Treatment Side Effects: What’s Fact and What’s Fiction?

AML Treatment Side Effects: What’s Fact and What’s Fiction? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

AML expert, Dr. Jessica Altman, addresses AML treatment side effects, such as nausea and changes in taste, in addition to discussing best practices for researching AML online.  

Dr. Jessica Altman is Director of the Acute Leukemia Program at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. More about Dr. Altman here.

See More From The Fact or Fiction? AML Series

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AML Treatment and Side Effects Program Resource Guide



All right, a little more fact and fiction now. Here’s what we hear from AML patients about treatment side effects. Tell me if this is true or not. “Treatment side effects are unavoidable.”

Dr. Altman:          

I think it’s probably true, but I don’t think it’s completely true. So, I think they’re a long ways away from being in that Hollywood picture of someone with cancer vomiting over the toilet. We have very good anti-nausea therapy that we give as preventative treatment, and we give the anti-nausea therapy different antiemetics based on the emetogenicity, or the risk of nausea related to chemotherapy.

And we know that. We know how risky an individual and a specific chemotherapy regimen is. In addition, there are additional anti-nausea medications available for all of our patients should they have nausea above and beyond what the preventative medications can handle. So, that’s one that I think, that nausea doesn’t have to occur and we can treat nausea. Many patients with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, with treatment, will experience fever that is related to the low blood counts and related to the chemotherapy itself. That being said, we give preventative antimicrobial therapy to prevent infection as one of the potential causes of fever.


Is there an increased risk of sunburn and skin cancer with AML?

Dr. Altman:         

So, some chemotherapies increase the risk of sun exposure and damage and sunburns. IN addition, some of the preventative antimicrobial medication that we use also can cause some skin sensitivity. There is a risk, whenever we give chemotherapy, of an increased chance in the future of secondary cancers. The risk of that is very low, but that is a risk that I talk about with all of my patients. Skin cancer is one of the cancers. There also is potential increased risk of thyroid cancer, increased risk of other bone marrow damage. And so, that is part of the conversation that I have with my patients.


The internet is a wonderful place, Dr. Altman, but for AML patients or anyone looking up medical information it can be overwhelming and infinite.

And confusing. What are some of the things that AML patients should think about when they’re researching their cancer on the internet?

Dr. Altman:          

So, I think the most important thing is to have a conversation with their healthcare practitioners and ask their healthcare practitioners what resources they recommend. And I think being upfront and telling your doctors that you’re utilizing the internet is always welcome by the healthcare provider. So, I think that utilization of the internet is fine, but just making sure that you ask your healthcare provider what resources he or she recommends.


Right, right. We have a question from Mari. She says, “I had busulfan treatment for my AML with great success. Experienced a side effect of noticeably patchy and thinning hair.”

“Is there hope for finding a cure for this chemo-induced alopecia? Life and self esteem is a huge role in survivorship. It can’t simply be fixed or covered with a wig.”

Dr. Altman:

Thank you, Mari. I appreciate that question. We at Northwestern have a Dermato-Oncology program that we work with. So, we have dermatologists who are very interested in the immediate and long-term side effects of chemotherapy and the skin manifestations of cancer, including blood cancers. So, my recommendation would be to try to seek out a dermatologist in conjunction with your oncologist to help see if there are other options that exist.


We also had a question from John. He wants to know if there’s a way to combat serious changes in taste and appetite from chemo.

Dr. Altman:       

So, I smirk a little bit because I keep waiting for the food scientist or food engineer to approach me about this. 

The biggest day-to-day complaint that we get from our patients is that the food tastes bad. And we know that while the hospital food might not be the greatest, it’s not just the hospital food. It’s the effect of the chemotherapy on taste buds. I don’t yet have an answer for this, but I’m very interested in finding a food scientist who can develop food that tastes normally for patients who are undergoing chemotherapy. 

What I suggest to my patients during the time period that they’re having chemotherapy is to try foods that maybe they don’t normally eat so that they don’t recognize how different it tastes from what they’re used to. And things that are a bit more bland for patients taste a little bit better, and colder foods don’t induce as much nausea for most of our patients. But another great question that I don’t have the answer to yet.


I know we talked a little bit about how overwhelming the internet can be, and how confusing a lot of the information is. How can patients identify misinformation and unreliable sources if they don’t have a conversation with their doctor in the wing?

Dr. Altman:

So, I think that as you mentioned, anything on the internet is not a substitute for medical advice. I think the same pearls that I would give to anyone who’s searching anything on the internet – anything that says ‘always’ or ‘never’ is probably not to be trusted, and anything that sounds too good to be true may well be too good to be true. I would start with reputable sources. The partners that you mentioned – the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the Aplastic Anemia and MDS Foundation have really good websites with patient information.

And the emerging growth of this organization as well, we anticipate growth of information available to our patients. 

What is Targeted AML Therapy?

What is Targeted AML Therapy? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 AML expert, Dr. Jessica Altman, defines targeted AML therapy and outlines available treatment options. Want to learn more? Download the Program Resource Guide here.

Dr. Jessica Altman is Director of the Acute Leukemia Program at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.

See More From The Fact or Fiction? AML Series

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Can you talk a little bit about targeted therapy?

Dr. Altman:

Absolutely. So, targeted therapy – while meant to be specific, because a target is meant to be specific – targeted therapy has become a relatively broad characterization of additional treatments. We think about targeted therapy as the addition of agents that specifically inhibit or target an abnormality associated with the leukemia. The most prominent targeted therapies right now involve specific mutations seen in Acute Myeloid Leukemia. 

For instance, about 30% of adults who have newly diagnosed AML will have a mutation in something called FLT3, or F-L-T-3. There is now an approved drug that is combined with standard intensive induction chemotherapy that improves the
response rate and overall survival in adults with AML with a FLT3 mutation. In addition, there is now an approved agent for relapsed and refractory FLT3 mutating leukemia. 


What about molecular testing? What can you say about that?

Dr. Altman:

Molecular testing is part of the workup for an adult or a child when they’re newly diagnosed Acute Myeloid Leukemia. And molecular abnormalities look for specific known mutations that occur in Acute Myeloid Leukemia cells. 

For instance, that FLT3 that I mentioned. In addition, the IDH mutation. Looking for those mutations has always been important in understanding the prognosis, but it’s now especially important because some specific mutations, we have additional therapies that we can give as part of initial treatment or for relapsed disease that target those mutations. So, not only do they have a prognostic role, but they have a treatment impact as well.

Managing AML Symptoms

Managing AML Symptoms from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Daniel Pollyea discusses  the management of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) symptoms, stressing the need for swift implementation of a treatment plan and providing advice on supplement use.

Dr. Daniel Pollyea is Clinical Director of Leukemia Services in the Division of Medical Oncology, Hematologic Malignancies and Blood and Marrow Transplant at University of Colorado Cancer Center. More about this expert.

More Fact or Fiction?

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What are the best ways to manage those symptoms?

Dr. Pollyea:

Right. So, I mean, at presentation, all those symptoms, the best way to manage those are to start treatment as quickly as possible. So, impacting the underlying cause of this disease is the most important and critical factor to getting a person feeling better because all of these problems stem from the disease in the bone marrow, and so everything else that you do to sort of help a person’s symptoms are Band-Aids when you’re not talking about getting to the root cause.

So, that’s at presentation. Now once we start treatment, there are many potential side effects to any number of treatments. And it all is dependent on what treatment you’re getting and other things about you that will make this a significant problem in some cases. And in that setting, we do have ways that we can aggressively manage a person’s
side effects.


Can you manage all of the symptoms? Or can people still be experiencing symptoms even after they’re in treatment?

Dr. Pollyea:

Absolutely. So, a person with this disease, depending on how long they’ve had it and some of the features, may not be feeling back to their baseline self for potentially weeks or months after treatment starts in the best-case scenario. So, that can be very frustrating, but a person needs to sort of be able to continue to have a good outlook and stay positive. Because we are able in many cases to make a big impact on this disease and return a person to their pre-disease quality of life.


There are some patients who I understand think that supplements can deal with the symptoms of AML. Is that accurate?

Dr. Pollyea:

You know, I mean, I think the supplement question is always a challenge. A lot of these supplements, or most of these supplements have never been tested with the rigor of treatments that we’re accustomed to in the medical establishment. That being said, I won’t deny that some of the supplements can help patients based on what patients’ experiences are and what they tell me. I think what’s really important is just be very open and honest with your doctor about the supplements that you’re taking or want to take to ensure that there are no sort of unanticipated interactions with treatments.

Because I think most doctors are very open to having their patients care for themselves in the ways that they’ve become accustomed to, and they know their bodies very well, and we’re very open to that. But there are sometimes that a drug or a supplement might have a bad interaction with the treatment.

And so, a good example in my practice is antioxidants. So, there’s a lot of literature, a lot of interest in antioxidants as cancer-prevention treatment. And a lot of that is not well-established, but still I don’t see much harm. But when it comes time to treating a cancer, that’s a very different situation. When we give a patient treatment to try to kill the cancer cells, many times we’re trying to provoke oxidation. That’s part of how these drugs and these treatments work.

So, if you’re taking those treatments, but also at the same time taking antioxidants, there’s the potential you could sort of be cutting your therapy off at the knees, fighting it with one hand behind your back. So, for the period of time when my patients are getting an active treatment, I ask that they don’t take it antioxidant. And they can resume that in the future in the hopes of preventing another cancer. But the time to prevent with an antioxidant isn’t appropriate when you’re dealing with an active cancer. So, that’s just one example.

What You Should Know About Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)

This podcast was originally published on City of Hope Radio by Guido Marcucci, MD, here.


Topic Info: Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is characterized by rapidly-developing cancer in the myeloid line of blood cells, which is responsible for producing red blood cells, platelets and several types of white blood cells called granulocytes.

Because AML grows rapidly, it can quickly crowd out normal blood cells, leading to anemia, susceptibility to infections and uncontrolled bleeding.

Due to the aggressive nature of AML, this disease usually requires intensive treatment, which may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and stem cell transplantation.

The following represent symptoms typical for AML:

  • Fever with or without an infection
  • Frequent bruising or bleeds that do not clot
  • Leukemia cutis (multiple lesions with a firm or rubbery consistency that may be pink, red, red-brown or blue-violet in color)
  • Night sweats
  • Pain in the bones or joints
  • Pain or feeling of fullness below the ribs
  • Petechiae (flat, pinpoint spots under the skin caused by bleeding)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness or feeling tired

Listen in as Guido Marcucci, MD discusses AML, its symptoms, diagnoses, and treatments.

Acute Myeloid Leukemia: Diagnosis & Prognosis

This podcast was originally published on The Bloodline With LLS on April 22, 2019, here.


Join Alicia and Lizette as they speak with Dr. Martha Arellano, Associate Professor of Hematology and Oncology and Program Director of the Hematology and Medical Oncology Fellowship Program at the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. On this episode, Dr. Arellano defines acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and how it is diagnosed. She addresses questions about cause and prevention and how treatment is determined for younger vs older patients. Dr. Arellano also explains the importance of a patient getting a second opinion to not only increase their education about diagnosis and treatment options but also as a way to move forward with a team they trust.

Treating Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)

This podcast was originally published on The Bloodline With LLS on May 21, 2019, here.


There have been few advances in treatment for AML in 40 years. Why is acute myeloid leukemia (AML) so difficult to treat? What is the current treatment for AML? How is The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) striving to change that? How are targeted therapies being used for patients? Is immediate treatment for patients necessary for all AML patients? How does a patient’s ethnic background play a role in finding a matching bone marrow donor?

Join Alicia and Lizette as they address these questions and more with Dr. Martha Arellano from Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. On this episode, Dr. Arellano addresses current treatment and treatment advances for AML, including stem cell transplantation and cellular therapy. She also explains the goal and impact of the Beat AML Master Trial, a groundbreaking collaborative and targeted clinical trial for patients with AML. Listen in as Dr. Arellano shares her excitement about the future of treatment for AML.

Why You Should Consider a Clinical Trial

This podcast was originally published on The Bloodline With LLS on September 6, 2017, here.


Listen in as Alicia and Lizette from The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) chat with John F. Gerecitano, MD, PhD, Clinical Director of Lymphoma Outpatient Services at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Margaret (Peg) McCormick, RN, BSN, MA, Consultant, Clinical Trials Support Center. Hear about the role clinical trials play in cancer treatment, who can participate in a clinical trial and how participants are protected, how LLS’s Clinical Trial Support Center assists patients in finding a trial that is right for them, and why it is important to think of clinical trials as a possible treatment option instead of a last resort.

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