Sometimes doctors find leukemia during a routine blood test. Other times, precise diagnostic tests aim to diagnose the presence and type of leukemia. A leukemia diagnosis can cause you a great deal of concern, and treatment can be complex - varying on the type of leukemia and other factors. This is why it is important to seek diagnosis early, as later stages of leukemia can be more complex and require more medical attention.
If you exhibit symptoms that suggest leukemia, your doctor will try to find out what's causing the problems. Your doctor will first ask about your personal and family medical history. During a physical exam, your doctor will then look for physical signs of leukemia, such as pale skin from anemia and swelling of your lymph nodes, liver and spleen.
Then, a complete blood exam and other tests are used to diagnose the type of leukemia. Additional tests that doctors order depend on symptoms and type of leukemia. These tests can be repeated after treatment begins to measure how well treatment is working. Your doctor may then request one or more of the following tests:
Biopsy - During a biopsy, doctors remove tissue to look for cancer cells.
Blood tests - Blood samples can help determine if abnormal levels of white blood cells or platelets are present which may suggest leukemia. A complete blood count checks the number of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. Leukemia causes a very high level of white blood cells and/or low levels of platelets and hemoglobin.
Bone marrow sample - During this procedure, a needle is used to remove a sample of the bone and /or marrow to look for leukemia cells.
Chest x-ray - An x-ray can identify swollen lymph nodes or other signs of disease in the chest.
Cytogenetic analysis - This test detects changes in chromosomes .
Immunophenotype - Immunophenotyping helps determine whether an increased number of lymphocytes in your blood is caused by a reactive process - such as a reaction to infection or inflammation - or a cancerous process. The diagnostic tool also helps distinguish chronic lymphocytic leukemia cells from other types of leukemia and lymphoma.
Spinal tap - Your doctor may remove some cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid that fills the spaces in and around the brain and spinal cord in order to confirm or exclude diagnoses.
If you are diagnosed with certain types of leukemia, the cancer will then need to be staged to indicate the severity of the disease. A staging system is a standardized way for the cancer care team to summarize information about how far a cancer has spread. Most types of cancer are assigned a numbered stage based on the size of the tumor and how far it has spread. To learn more about staging leukemia, read the next section on how to stage different types of leukemia that follows.