The chemical benzene is present in many industries in the U.S. It is used to make plastics, resins, and other synthetic materials, and is a component in petroleum, solvents, degreasers, and dyes. Its presence in so many areas of manufacture means that potentially hundreds of thousands of workers are at risk of disease, including acute myelogenous leukemia, or AML.
What is AML?
Acute myelogenous leukemia is a form of cancer that begins in bone marrow. Known also as acute myeloblastic leukemia, acute myelocytic leukemia, and acute nonlymphocytic leukemia, AML strikes immature and defective cells of the bone marrow. AML is not inherited, but rather results from exposure to one of numerous substances, including benzene. Indeed, while sometimes it is difficult to determine a link between exposure to a substance and AML, workers who are regularly exposed to benzene are most prone to the disease.
While a person of any age can develop AML, is it more common in adults over the age of 60. This may be due to prolonged exposure to the substance in the workplace or home. Approximately 12,000 individuals are diagnosed with AML annually.
What does AML do to the Sufferer?
When healthy, the bone marrow manufactures red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. In essence, AML attacks the marrow and prevents development of healthy white blood cells. Instead of producing granulocytes, the marrow creates blast cells that do not develop normally.
Symptoms and Treatment
When a doctor examines a patient for AML, signs of the disease include a swelling of the lymph nodes, spleen, or liver. The doctor will take a blood cell count to determine whether anemia is present. A positive test of the bone marrow called bone marrow aspiration will show leukemia cells. Further tests may be conducted to determine precisely whether the patient has AML or another form of leukemia.
Among the common symptoms of AML are:
- Significant weight loss
- Bone pain
- Bleeding from the nose and/or gums
- Skin rash
- Shortness of breath
- Pale appearance
Treatment almost invariably involves chemotherapy. Often more than one drug is necessary to kill the cancer cells. Antibiotics may be prescribed if an infection is present. In some cases a bone marrow transplant may be performed following the first administration of chemotherapy. Transfusions are also used as a treatment for some patients.
If a patient responds positively to chemotherapy and other treatment, the cancer may go into remission. Generally once a patient is cancer free for five years he is considered cured. Unfortunately, there is a downside to chemotherapy as well. Side effects can be severe, since the drugs administered attack healthy cells along with cancer cells.