Leukemia begins in the soft interior of the bones that is responsible for the development of new blood stem cells. Because the leukemia cells are faster to replicate than the healthy cells — they don’t die at the right time, and therefore, they crowd out all the healthy cells within the body. 

We find that many of our patients and clients have questions about leukemia diagnosis — like how quickly is leukemia diagnosed and how is leukemia diagnosed in both children and adults.

If you’re looking for answers, read on. We’ll cover this and more in our article. 

Various Types of Leukemia 

Before diving into exactly how leukemia is diagnosed, it’s important to have a quick overview of the different types of leukemia.

There are four main types of leukemia. These types are considered either myeloid or lymphocytic depending on where they begin in the bone marrow. Leukemia is also classified as either chronic or acute. 

Chronic leukemias can start slow before causing problems. As we say, by default, chronic leukemia is the lesser of two evils. It happens when a sufficient number of legitimate blood cells are able to remain in the body’s bloodstream and combat what’s being caused by the underdeveloped ones. The consequences of chronic leukemia are still serious, yet they occur at a delayed rate.

Acute, on the other hand, happens when your body becomes overrun with immature cells in the blood. As a result, they can no longer perform the necessary vital functions your body needs. Acute leukemia is rapid, and when we’re talking about how quickly leukemia is diagnosed, it’s important for acute leukemia to get diagnosed and for treatment to begin as soon as possible.

These are the four main types of leukemia:

  • Acute myeloid leukemia (AML)
  • Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML)
  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)

How Is Leukemia Diagnosed?

Leukemia is typically diagnosed with a combination of physical exams, blood tests, bone marrow tests, imaging tests, and biopsies. Let’s dive deeper into answering how leukemia is diagnosed in adults, before taking a look at how it’s diagnosed in children. 1

Physical Exam and History

If leukemia is suspected, a doctor will typically start with a physical exam. During this time, they’ll want to know if you or your child have had any of the following symptoms. Knowing what are the early signs of leukemia, what do leukemia spots look like, and what does leukemia pain feel like are all important parts of the process. When patients ask, “How can you test for leukemia at home?” — we always say that knowing the symptoms is a good place to begin. Remember that not everyone will show these symptoms early on. Some symptoms will come later, and some will be more severe for you than they are for others.

Leukemia Symptoms

  • Easy bruising and bleeding, including recurring nosebleeds
  • Anemia
  • Persistent fatigue
  • Frequent or severe infections
  • Fever and chills
  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Enlarged liver or spleen
  • Pain or tenderness in the bones
  • Profuse sweating, especially at night
  • Petechiae, a condition that looks like a rash and appears as tiny red dots on your skin

With a physical exam, the doctor will also ask about possible risk factors. You’ll discuss whether or not you’ve been exposed to certain types of radiation (as that is a known risk factor), whether or not you’ve had previous chemotherapy, and if there are certain medical conditions he or she should be aware of. For example, people who are immunosuppressed, like those who have had an organ transplant and take immunosuppressive medications due to an organ transplant, have a greater risk of developing leukemia.

Smoking and tobacco also are risk factors for developing leukemia, as is exposure to certain chemicals like benzene, formaldehyde, radon, contaminated drinking water, and home pesticide exposures. 

Family history also plays a role in the different types of leukemia. For instance, those who have a first-degree family member who has had CLL (meaning a parent, sibling, or child) have double the risk of developing the disease. 

Blood Tests

A routine blood test is called a complete blood count, or CBC. For those who are curious about how leukemia is diagnosed, this is one of the places where doctors begin. The CBC measures the number of different types of cells in a sample of your blood. If the blood shows abnormalities in your cells — like higher than usual counts of abnormal white blood cells, and lower counts of red blood cells and platelets, this is an indication of leukemia. The low counts of red blood cells refer to a condition called anemia, whereas the low platelet cells indicate thrombocytopenia (both of which are symptoms of leukemia. With this test, the doctor may also be able to see some abnormal cells in the blood. Blood tests are also used to collect these cancer cells so that further testing can be done. With more testing, doctors can look for specific genetic markers that help to tell how risky the disease is and what the chances are that it will become worse.

The typical findings of blood tests for the different types of cancer are as follows:

Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML)

There will be lower than normal amounts of red cells and platelets.

Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)

There will be lower than normal amounts of red cells and platelets.

Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML)

The red blood cell count might be high and platelet count might be high or low.

The white blood cell count might be very high.

There may be an increased number of mature looking lymphocytes.

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)

The red cells and platelets might or may not be decreased.

The white blood cell count might be very high.

Flow Cytometry and Cytochemistry

During flow cytometry and cytochemistry tests, chemicals or dyes are applied to cancer cells within a lab setting to help provide further information on the specific type of leukemia. In chronic lymphocytic leukemia, the blood stem cells have markers called surface proteins on the outside, which help doctors to diagnose that particular type of leukemia. For CLL, flow cytometry is the most important test that helps with diagnosis.

Bone Marrow Tests

With some times of leukemia, like CLL, the cancer can be diagnosed without the need for bone marrow tests. However, bone marrow tests will sometimes be completed before a patient starts treatment. Bone marrow is made up of both a solid and a liquid part. During a bone marrow aspiration, a sample of fluid will be removed with a needle; during a bone marrow biopsy, on the other hand, a small amount of the solid tissue will be removed instead. This is commonly done in the pelvic bone and the sample is then analyzed by a pathologist. 

Imaging Tests

When discussing how leukemia is diagnosed, imaging tests are also a method doctors use. A chest x-ray can help look for an enlarged thymus or lymph nodes, while a CT scan or MRI can look for leukemia in other organs, like the brain, spleen, and liver. A PET scan might be used to show how far abnormal cells have spread throughout the body.

Lumbar Puncture

This test is also known as a spinal tap and helps to determine if there are leukemia cells present in cerebrospinal fluid. 

How is Childhood Leukemia Diagnosed?

Childhood leukemia accounts for nearly one-third of all cancers in children and teenagers — making it the most common form of cancer in their age group. 

Many parents want to know exactly when and how childhood leukemia is diagnosed. Typically, children are diagnosed with childhood leukemia once the cancer has entered the bloodstream and spread to other parts of the body. 

Answering how is childhood leukemia diagnosed has a lot to do with the common symptoms. At the time of diagnosis, children may be exhibiting various symptoms, like fatigue, headaches, paleness, fever, and infection. Although these can be common signs of other childhood issues, if they reoccur or persist, this is a cause for concern. 

Similar to an adult diagnosis, if your child’s doctor suspects leukemia, he or she will then recommend a blood test. If this test shows the presence of leukemia on the blood, your child will be referred to an oncologist for full testing — such a bone marrow aspiration and biopsy. They may also do a lumbar puncture and imaging tests to see the extent of the leukemia in other parts of the body.

If you or your child are exhibiting any of the persistent symptoms we mentioned above, it’s important that you seek professional medical care. As with all cancers, the sooner you begin treatment, the better the prognosis.

Although scientists are still trying to figure out precisely what causes leukemia, there is hope in the strides that are being made every day to help treat leukemia.

Whether you have questions about leukemia diagnosis, leukemia diet, or would like to know more about what are the symptoms of end stage leukemia, please don’t hesitate to contact our team today. We’re always here with an open heart and ready to speak to you and your family about your options.

We offer alternative targeted therapy options specific to your needs. Our cancer treatment is intended to help you get better without ruining your quality of life, as radiation therapy or chemotherapy often does. 

At ITC, our natural treatment plans help to heal every part of you — body, mind, and spirit. We look forward to speaking with you soon and becoming part of your journey to wellness.

Sources:

  1. “Chronic Lymphocytic.” cancer.net, October 2017, https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/leukemia-chronic-lymphocytic-cll/diagnosis. Accessed May 29, 2020.
  2. Raymaakers, Karen. “Causes and Risk Factors of Leukemia.” verywellhealth.com, July 17, 2019, https://www.verywellhealth.com/leukemia-causes-risk-factors-2252385. Accessed May 29, 2020.