Diagnosing Leukemia

A doctor may suspect you have leukemia after completing a physical or if you report experiencing the symptoms of leukemia. There are instances where leukemia is suspected from results of blood tests performed for other reasons. There are several tests a doctor may use to diagnose leukemia, ranging from blood tests to spinal taps.

Physical Exam. During a physical exam, a doctor may look for lumps, other abnormalities or symptoms of leukemia. A thorough medical history will be taken and the patient can report a history of leukemia or any symptoms or risk factors.

Blood Tests. Blood tests, such as complete blood count (CBC) can detect leukemia. A CBC determines the number of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. It also can count the number of red blood cells that make up the blood sample and the amount of hemoglobin in the blood.


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Other blood tests that may be used to diagnose leukemia include:

  • peripheral blood smear – determines the presence of blast cells and reveals the type and quantity of white blood cells
  • cytogenic analysis – is a blood test in which a sample of blood is examined to check for changes in the chromosomes of the lymphocytes
  • other various blood tests – other blood tests may be ordered to see how organs are functioning and if they are being affected by leukemia
  • Biopsy. A biopsy is a procedure in which a sample of cells are removed from the body to be examined for cancer. Bone marrow biopsy is used to diagnose leukemia. A large bore needle is inserted in to the hip or, rarely, the breast bone and a sample of the bone is removed and bone marrow is then aspirated. The material is then examined by a pathologist. A lymph node biopsy may also be performed depending on the type of leukemia suspected.
  • Lumbar Puncture/Spinal Tap. A lumbar puncture or spinal tap may be done to diagnose leukemia. Under an anesthetic, a small amount of spinal fluid is removed from the spaces between the vertebrae in the spine. The fluid is then examined by a pathologist.

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