As with most other cancers, many types of leukemia show no obvious symptoms early in the disease. Because of this, it is sometimes diagnosed incidentally during a physical exam or as a result of routine blood testing. Since there is no standard screening process for detecting early-stage leukemia, it is important to see your doctor regularly for a checkup. If you have symptoms that suggest leukemia, your doctor will try to find out what’s causing the problems, which often includes certain tests to either diagnose or rule out the disease. 

Keep in mind that having symptoms of leukemia does not necessarily mean you have leukemia. With that said, it’s always a good idea to get checked out by your doctor. Some of the tests you may have can include: 

  • Physical exam. During a physical exam, your doctor checks for swollen lymph nodes, spleen, or liver. He or she will also discuss your personal and family medical history. 
  • Blood tests. For a blood test, the lab does 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.
  • Biopsy. A biopsy is the only sure way to know whether leukemia cells are in your bone marrow. During a biopsy, your doctor removes tissue (some bone marrow from your hip bone or other large bone) to look for cancer cells after local anesthesia has been used to numb the area. A pathologist then uses a microscope to check the tissue for leukemia cells.

There are two ways your doctor can obtain bone marrow. Some people will have both procedures during the same visit:

  • Bone marrow aspiration, where the doctor uses a thick, hollow needle to remove samples of bone marrow.
  • Bone marrow biopsy, where the doctor uses a very thick, hollow needle to remove a small piece of bone and bone marrow.

Other Tests Used For Leukemia

In some cases, your particular symptoms or type of leukemia may require additional tests, such as: 

  • Cytogenetics. With this test, the lab looks at the chromosomes of cells from samples of blood, bone marrow, or lymph nodes. If abnormal chromosomes are found, the test can show what type of leukemia you have. For example, people with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) have an abnormal chromosome called the Philadelphia chromosome.
  • Spinal tap. If needed, 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. 
  • 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.

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. Please find the RMCC location that is most convenient for you and call to request an appointment.