As with most other cancers, many types of leukemia show no obvious symptoms early in the disease. Because of this, many patients are sent for additional testing after a routine physical or blood work.

Since there is no standard screening process for detecting early-stage leukemia, it's important to see your doctor regularly for a checkup. If you have symptoms that suggest leukemia, your doctor will need to learn more. 

Tests Used for Diagnosing Leukemia

Keep in mind that the presence of leukemia symptoms does not necessarily mean you have it. If you notice symptoms it's always a good idea to get checked out by your doctor. Here are some of the ways the doctor will evaluate your health.


Physical exam

One of the first things your doctor likely to do if you come in with leukemia symptoms is a physical exam. Your doctor checks for swollen lymph nodes, spleen, or liver. He or she will also discuss your personal and family medical histories. 


Blood Tests

Because leukemia affects the blood, your doctor can get a lot of answers by reviewing blood test results. Typically they will request a complete blood count to check the number of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. Leukemia causes a very high level of white blood cells. It may also cause low levels of platelets and hemoglobin, which is found inside red blood cells. 


Aspiration or Biopsy of Bone Marrow

If the blood test shows that leukemia may be the cause of the symptoms, a biopsy or needle aspiration is performed to know whether leukemia cells are present in your bone marrow.

During a biopsy, your doctor removes some bone marrow from your hip bone along with a small piece of bone after local anesthesia has been used to numb the area. A needle aspiration is used to remove liquid bone marrow for testing. A pathologist then uses a microscope to check the tissue for leukemia cells.

Other Tests Used to Diagnosed the Extent of Leukemia

If leukemia is found in the pathology report, more tests may be needed to see if it has spread to other areas of the body. 

  • Lumbar puncture. Your doctor may remove some of the cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid that fills the spaces in and around the brain and spinal cord) after local anesthesia has been administered. During this procedure, your doctor uses a long, thin needle to remove fluid from the lower spine, which will be checked in the lab for leukemia cells or other signs of problems. While the procedure itself takes about 30 minutes, you must lie flat for several hours afterward to keep from getting a headache. 
  • Flow cytometry. This test detects the type of cancer cells and can be used to predict how aggressive the leukemia will be and which treatments would work best. It can also tell you if disease has recurred.
  • Chest x-ray. A chest x-ray can be beneficial in that it can show swollen lymph nodes or other signs of disease in your chest.

What's Next?
Stages of Leukemia


Choosing Your Leukemia Cancer Care Team

At Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers (RMCC), we understand that a leukemia diagnosis can be scary and overwhelming, which is why our expert oncologists are committed to providing you peace of mind by offering the most advanced treatments for all types of cancers of the blood, including leukemia.