If Treatment for Acute Myeloid Leukemia Stops Working

If the leukemia keeps growing or comes back after one kind of treatment, it is possible that another treatment plan might still cure it, or at least keep it under control enough to help you live longer and feel better (see “ What if acute myeloid leukemia doesn’t respond or comes back after treatment?”). Clinical trials also might offer chances to try newer treatments that could be helpful.

But when a person has tried many different treatments and the leukemia is no longer getting better, even newer treatments may no longer be helpful. If this happens, it’s important to weigh the possible limited benefits of a new treatment against the possible downsides, including treatment side effects. Everyone has their own way of looking at this.

This is likely to be the hardest part of your battle with leukemia – when you have been through many treatments and nothing’s working anymore. Your doctor might offer you new options, but at some point you may need to consider that treatment is not likely to improve your health or change your outcome or survival.

If you want to continue to get treatment for as long as you can, you need to think about the odds of treatment having any benefit and how this compares to the possible risks and side effects. In many cases, your doctor can estimate how likely it is the leukemia will respond to treatment you are considering. For instance, the doctor may say that more treatment might have about a 1 in 100 chance of working. Some people are still tempted to try this. But it is important to have realistic expectations if you do choose this plan.

Palliative care

No matter what you decide to do, it’s important that you feel as good as you can. Make sure you are asking for and getting treatment for any symptoms you might have, such as nausea or pain. This type of treatment is called palliative care.

Palliative care helps relieve symptoms, but it’s not expected to cure the disease. It can be given along with cancer treatment, or can even be cancer treatment. The difference is its purpose − the main goal of palliative care is to improve the quality of your life, or help you feel as good as you can for as long as you can. Sometimes this means using drugs to help with symptoms like pain or nausea.

For leukemia, palliative care often includes treatments such as blood transfusions that help relieve fatigue. Sometimes, though, the treatments used to control your symptoms are the same as those used to treat the leukemia. For instance, radiation might be used to help relieve bone pain. Or chemo might be used to help keep the number of leukemia cells in check. But this is not the same as treatment to try to cure the leukemia.

Hospice care

At some point, you may benefit from hospice care. This is special care that treats the person rather than the disease; it focuses on quality rather than length of life. Most of the time, it is given at home. Your leukemia may be causing problems that need to be managed, and hospice focuses on your comfort. You should know that while getting hospice care often means the end of treatments such as chemo and radiation, it doesn’t mean you can’t have treatment for the problems caused by the leukemia or other health conditions.

In hospice the focus of your care is on living life as fully as possible and feeling as well as you can at this difficult time. You can learn more in Hospice Care.

Staying hopeful is important, too. Your hope for a cure may not be as bright, but there is still hope for good times with family and friends – times that are filled with happiness and meaning. Pausing at this time in your treatment gives you a chance to refocus on the most important things in your life. Now is the time to do some things you’ve always wanted to do and to stop doing the things you no longer want to do. Though the leukemia may be beyond your control, there are still choices you can make.

To learn more

You can learn more about the changes that occur when treatment stops working, and about planning ahead for yourself and your family, in Advance Directives and Nearing the End of Life.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: December 9, 2014 Last Revised: February 22, 2016

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