Coping with Acute Myeloid Leukemia

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Being told that you or a loved one has acute myeloid leukemia (AML) can be a lot for anyone to take in. While the good news is that many treatments for AML are effective, being able to emotionally process the news and come up with strategies for moving forward may take considerable time and attention.

Remember, you are not alone. There are resources that can help guide and support you while coping with this diagnosis. This article will discuss how to cope emotionally and physically and how to find the right support network to maximize your quality of life during this period.

Woman wearing a turban talking to a doctor.

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Emotional

Acute myeloid leukemia, or myelocytic leukemia, is a cancer that starts in the bone marrow, the soft inner area of the bone where blood cells are made. It quickly moves into the blood and can sometimes travel to other parts of the body, such as the lymph nodes, liver, and central nervous system.

With this kind of diagnosis, you may find you're dealing with a bevy of different emotions. These may include feelings such as:

  • Shock
  • Fear
  • Numbness
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Depression

You may experience some, none, or all of these feelings. There is no right or wrong way to take in a cancer diagnosis. What's more, your feelings may change from day to day.

It may be beneficial to talk to a counselor or mental health professional during this time. Your treatment team can often refer you to a variety of resources.

To help cope, there are steps you can take to make dealing with this diagnosis easier on you physically. One of the first things you can do is to strive to have as healthy a lifestyle as possible. Steps you can take include:

  • Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Managing your weight
  • Practicing relaxation techniques

These do not have to be huge changes. The idea is to keep yourself as physically healthy as possible. If you find that your treatment is interfering with your ability to eat properly, talk to your medical team right away so they can make any needed adjustments as soon as possible.

For those with cancer, being active is important for more than just staying in shape. It can actually be a mood lifter. Exercise can help to minimize fatigue, lower anxiety and depression, heighten quality of life, and improve overall functioning.

But keep in mind that if your immunity is low, you should avoid exercising in crowded spaces, such as gyms, where you may pick up infections.

You may need to modify your exercise routine if you experience symptoms of peripheral neuropathy, such as a feeling of pins and needles or a loss of sensation in the hands and feet, which can result from using certain cancer treatments. Perhaps try working out on a stationary bike instead of attempting to lift heavy weights.

Talk to Your Doctor

Before starting or continuing with any exercise regimen while undergoing treatment, be sure to get the go-ahead from your medical team, especially if you've recently had surgery.

Physical

As a way to cope, it can be helpful to know what physical challenges may lie ahead. This can mean checking with your doctor and getting a handle on likely side effects from various treatments.

Hair loss is one visible side effect that many people deal with when getting chemotherapy. This happens when chemo medications attack rapidly dividing cells, including those in hair follicles. Unfortunately, scalp cooling to prevent hair loss from chemotherapy is not recommended in leukemia patients.

Some people may prefer to cut their hair or shave their head even before experiencing any hair loss. Buying a wig or head covering ahead of time can offer a sense of control, as well.

While undergoing chemotherapy, individuals with acute myeloid leukemia experience side effects such as:

  • Mouth sores
  • Lack of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Frequent infections
  • Bruising
  • Fatigue

Keep in mind that these side effects will end when the treatment is over. But do talk to your healthcare team for suggestions on relieving your particular symptoms. If you are struggling with anemia, for example, your doctor may be able to prescribe medications to encourage your body to produce more red blood cells.

Appetite loss may be due to issues such as mouth sores, nausea, or something else. Addressing your lack of desire to eat is vital. Practically speaking, steps you can take to eat more include eating many smaller meals, eating during times of the day when you are most hungry, and eating highly nutritious snacks.

Together with your healthcare team, you should be able to find solutions that work to get you through this period.

Social

In coping with this kind of diagnosis, it's important to reach out to others to build a social support network. Fortunately, you do not have to do this all on your own. Cancer organizations can be a great place to start.

Organizations such as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) have a variety of support groups. Attending a support group—either in person or virtually—can be a good way to share concerns with others who are facing similar hurdles as you. In addition to groups for patients, support groups exist for family members and close friends.

The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society alone has 130 local groups that meet once a month at no cost. You can find groups in your area using the tool on the LLS website.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) has a 24/7 cancer helpline at 800-227-2345 to assist in connecting you with information specialists who are knowledgeable about the disease and can also listen compassionately. Specialists can answer questions
about treatment options, side effects, medicines, and pain control.

The ACS also has a Cancer Survivors Network in which you can share your own story, as well as hear what others have been through.

Practical

Financial implications may also be a concern for you. After a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia, you may not be able to work full-time and continue to earn as much as you did previously. You may want to see if your employer will allow you to work a flexible schedule or take a leave of absence during this time.

If you have to travel to get treatment, consider that many cancer centers offer housing discounts at nearby hotels or may have other short-term housing arrangements available.

If you need a caregiver, some states have programs to pay for this through your local Medicaid office. There are also organizations that help cover costs for air travel and other transportation related to cancer care.

See if you are eligible for services by mercymedical.org. The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society also has a patient aid program that helps cover the cost of gas and parking related to outpatient cancer care.

Summary

A diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia brings with it many challenges. You and your loved ones may need to cope with a variety of emotions. Treatment can bring a need to deal with physical side effects that can include hair loss and loss of appetite. Support groups may help.

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11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Cancer Research UK. What you can do. August 1, 2018.

  3. Cancer Research UK. Exercise guidelines for cancer patients. Updated December 13, 2019.

  4. American Society of Clinical Oncology. Can scalp cooling stop hair loss from chemotherapy? January 24, 2019.

  5. American Cancer Society. Coping with hair loss. Updated December 10, 2020.

  6. American Cancer Society. If you have acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Updated August 21, 2018.

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  8. Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Reach out to others for support.

  9. American Cancer Society. Cancer survivors network.

  10. American Cancer Society. Cancer in the workplace.

  11. American Cancer Society. Programs and resources to help with cancer-related expenses. Updated April 12, 2019.