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Leukaemia diagnosis

Many of the symptoms of leukaemia are quite general and can be caused by a range of illnesses. To make a definite diagnosis of leukaemia, a number of tests need to be done.

Your doctor will most likely give you a physical examination and take a sample of your blood so it can be examined under a microscope. If the blood test shows large numbers of abnormal white blood cells, and low numbers of healthy blood cells, more tests will be done to confirm the diagnosis.

Tests for leukaemia

There are several tests that can be done to confirm a diagnosis of leukaemia, and to work out which type it is:

  • Bone marrow biopsy - a syringe is used to take a sample of bone marrow, usually from your hip bone, for examination under the microscope and genetic testing.
  • Lumbar puncture - this is sometimes called a spinal tap. A needle is put into the space between the bones of your lower back and fluid from around the spinal cord is removed for examination under the microscope to look for abnormal white blood cells.
  • Lymph node biopsy - if you have swollen or tender lymph nodes, a sample may be removed for examination under the microscope.

Stages of leukaemia

The 'stage' of leukaemia describes how much the illness is affecting the person with it. Doctors do with with a chest X-ray, CT scan or lumbar puncture to see if the leukaemia has spread. They may also look for chromosomal changes in your blood.

For acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) and acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), the disease is described as either untreated, in remission, or recurrent (returned).

Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) has five stages: stage 0 to stage IV, the latter being at its most advanced. It may also be described according to its phase: chronic (when there are only a few abnormal white blood cells or blasts), 'accelerated' (when the leukaemia growth suddenly changes), and 'blast' (when there are a lot of immature white blood cells, causing symptoms to worsen).

Last reviewed: April 2017

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