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Diagnosing Leukemia

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Updated May 27, 2014

Technician holding blood sample
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The signs and symptoms of leukemia and other blood cancers can be vague and may be the same as many other less serious conditions. It is very important for the doctor to have an accurate diagnosis to:

  • Predict how the disease will progress
  • Determine the most effective treatment

Usually when a person shows signs or symptoms of leukemia, they are referred to a specialist called a hematologist or oncologist. This will be the physician that will determine the diagnosis, as well as plan any treatments, if required.

Diagnosing Leukemia

Physical exam and medical history: When healthcare providers are investigating a patient for leukemia, they will almost always begin with a thorough physical exam and medical history. They will be interested to know details about any symptoms you are experiencing and will do a complete head-to-toe assessment.

Bloodwork: To do these tests, blood will usually be taken from a vein in your arm. The cells are then looked at under a microscope. Common blood tests for leukemia include:

  • Complete Blood Count (CBC): Tests to measure levels of red cells, white cells, and platelets in the body as well as how the cells look.
  • Peripheral Blood Smear: Blood cells are dyed and looked at under a microscope for the presence of immature “blast” cells.

Summary Of Leukemia Bloodwork Results

DiseaseCBC ResultsBlood Smear Results
Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML)•Lower than normal amounts of red cells and platelets•Too many immature white cells
Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)•Lower than normal amounts of red cells and platelets•Too many immature white cells
Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML)•Red blood cell count is decreased and the white cell count is often very high
•Platelet levels may be increased or decreased depending on the stage of the disease
•May still show some immature white cells
•Mainly high numbers of fully mature, but dysfunctional cells
Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)•Red cells and platelets may or may not be decreased
•Increased numbers of lymphocytes
•Little or no immature white cells
•Possibly fragments of red cells

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