How to Test for Leukemia: Symptoms, Diagnostic Tests, and Treatment Options

Leukemia is a type of blood cancer that affects the white blood cells. It occurs when the bone marrow produces abnormal white blood cells that do not function properly. Leukemia can be acute or chronic, and there are four main subtypes: acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), acute myeloid leukemia (AML), chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), and chronic myeloid leukemia (CML).

Leukemia is a serious health problem that affects millions of people worldwide. According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 60,530 new cases of leukemia will be diagnosed in the United States in 2021, and about 23,100 people will die from the disease. Although leukemia can occur at any age, it is most commonly diagnosed in adults over the age of 55.

If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with leukemia, it’s important to understand the symptoms, diagnostic tests, and treatment options available. This comprehensive guide will provide you with all the information you need to test for leukemia and fight this life-threatening disease.

What is Leukemia?

Types of Leukemia

Types of Leukemia

Leukemia is a type of blood cancer that affects the white blood cells. There are four main types of leukemia, each with its own unique characteristics and treatment options.

Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)

Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL) is the most common type of leukemia in children, but it can also affect adults. It is characterized by the rapid growth of immature lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, in the bone marrow. Symptoms of ALL include fatigue, fever, and frequent infections. Treatment for ALL usually involves chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and stem cell transplant.

Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)

Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) is a fast-growing type of leukemia that starts in the bone marrow and often spreads to the blood and other parts of the body. It is typically diagnosed in older adults, although it can occur at any age. AML is caused by the rapid growth of abnormal myeloid cells, which are a type of white blood cell. Symptoms of AML include fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath. Treatment for AML may involve chemotherapy, radiation therapy, stem cell transplant, or targeted therapy.

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) is a slow-growing type of leukemia that affects the white blood cells responsible for fighting infection. It is most commonly diagnosed in people over the age of 60, and it is more common in men than women. CLL often does not cause symptoms in its early stages, but as it progresses, symptoms may include swollen lymph nodes, fatigue, and weight loss. Treatment for CLL may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, or targeted therapy.

Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML)

Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML) is a type of leukemia that occurs when the bone marrow produces too many abnormal myeloid cells. It is relatively rare, accounting for only 15% of all leukemia cases. CML often does not cause symptoms in its early stages, but as it progresses, symptoms may include fatigue, weakness, and abdominal pain. Treatment for CML typically involves targeted therapy, which can effectively control the disease in most patients.

In conclusion, understanding the different types of leukemia and their unique characteristics is essential to developing an effective treatment plan. If you are experiencing any symptoms of leukemia or suspect you may have the disease, it is important to seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and Risk Factors

Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. While the exact cause of leukemia is not known, there are several risk factors that have been identified.

Genetic Predisposition

One of the most significant risk factors for developing leukemia is genetic predisposition. People with certain genetic mutations are more likely to develop the disease. For example, Down’s syndrome is associated with an increased risk of developing acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). Additionally, inherited conditions such as Fanconi anemia and Bloom syndrome can increase the risk of developing leukemia.

Exposure to Radiation or Chemicals

Exposure to high levels of radiation or certain chemicals has also been linked to an increased risk of leukemia. This is because these substances can change the DNA within cells, leading to mutations that can cause cancer. People who work in industries such as nuclear power, petrochemicals, and rubber manufacturing may be at greater risk of exposure to these types of substances.

Immune System Dysfunction

The immune system plays an important role in protecting the body from diseases. When the immune system is dysfunctional, it can lead to an increased risk of developing leukemia. For example, people with autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, may be more susceptible to developing certain types of leukemia.

Viral Infections

Certain viral infections have also been linked to an increased risk of leukemia. For example, the human T-cell leukemia virus (HTLV-1) can cause a type of leukemia called adult T-cell leukemia/lymphoma. Additionally, the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) has been linked to an increased risk of developing Burkitt’s lymphoma, a type of leukemia that is more common in Africa.

While these risk factors do not guarantee that a person will develop leukemia, they are important to consider when evaluating an individual’s risk. By understanding the causes and risk factors of leukemia, we can work to develop better prevention strategies and improve treatment options for those who are diagnosed with the disease.

Leukemia Symptoms

Early Symptoms

Early Symptoms

Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. In its early stages, leukemia may not cause any noticeable symptoms. However, as the disease progresses, certain signs and symptoms may emerge. Early detection of these symptoms can lead to timely diagnosis and better treatment outcomes.


One of the early symptoms of leukemia is anemia, which occurs when the body does not produce enough red blood cells. This can result in fatigue, weakness, pale skin, and shortness of breath. Anemia may also cause dizziness or lightheadedness, especially when standing up or exerting oneself physically.


Another early symptom of leukemia is easy bruising, which occurs when the body’s blood-clotting mechanisms are impaired. Small bruises or petechiae (tiny red dots) may appear on the skin or mucous membranes, such as inside the mouth or on the eyelids. Unexplained or frequent bruising should be evaluated by a healthcare provider.


In addition to bruising, leukemia may cause other types of bleeding, such as nosebleeds, gum bleeding, or heavy menstrual periods. These symptoms occur because the disease interferes with the normal functioning of platelets, which help to form blood clots. If bleeding is severe or prolonged, it may require medical attention.

Enlarged Lymph Nodes

Leukemia can also cause enlargement of the lymph nodes, which are part of the body’s immune system. Swollen lymph nodes may be felt as lumps under the skin, usually in the neck, armpits, or groin. They may or may not be painful. Other symptoms of lymph node enlargement may include fever, chills, or night sweats.

It is important to note that these early symptoms of leukemia may be caused by other conditions as well. Therefore, if you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to consult a healthcare provider for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Advanced Symptoms

Advanced Symptoms

When leukemia progresses, the symptoms become more severe. While early symptoms such as anemia, bruising, bleeding, and enlarged lymph nodes are often mild, advanced symptoms can significantly impact a patient’s daily life. Here are some advanced symptoms of leukemia:

  • Shortness of breath: As leukemia cells accumulate in the lungs, they can cause shortness of breath and wheezing. This symptom is particularly common in patients with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL).

  • Bone pain: Leukemia cells can infiltrate the bone marrow and cause bone pain. Patients may experience aches, tenderness, and swelling in their bones, especially in the legs and hips. Bone pain is more common in patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), but it can also occur in other types of leukemia.

  • Swollen spleen: The spleen is an organ that helps filter out old or damaged blood cells. In leukemia, the spleen can become enlarged as it tries to clear out abnormal cells. A swollen spleen can cause abdominal pain, discomfort, and a feeling of fullness. It may also lead to anemia and low platelet counts.

  • Frequent nosebleeds: Leukemia cells can interfere with the body’s ability to form clots, which can result in frequent nosebleeds. Patients may also experience bleeding gums, easy bruising, and heavy menstrual periods.

It’s important to note that these symptoms can also be caused by other conditions, so it’s crucial to consult a healthcare provider if you experience any of them. Early diagnosis and treatment can greatly improve the prognosis for leukemia patients.

Diagnostic Tests for Leukemia

Complete Blood Count (CBC)

Complete Blood Count (CBC)

A complete blood count (CBC) is a routine blood test that measures the levels of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets in the bloodstream. It is an essential diagnostic tool used to detect various medical conditions, including leukemia.

White Blood Cell Count

One of the most critical components of a CBC is the measurement of white blood cells or leukocytes. These are cells that play a crucial role in our immune system by fighting infections and foreign substances in the body. A low white blood cell count (leukopenia) can make an individual susceptible to infections, while a high count (leukocytosis) can indicate an infection or inflammation.

Red Blood Cell Count

Another vital aspect of CBC is the red blood cell (RBC) count. RBCs contain hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen throughout the body. A low RBC count (anemia) can lead to fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath, while a high count (polycythemia) can indicate dehydration or lung disease.

Platelet Count

Platelets are small fragments of cells that help in blood clotting to prevent excessive bleeding. CBC measures the number of platelets in a sample of blood. A low platelet count (thrombocytopenia) may cause easy bruising, bleeding from the gums, and nosebleeds, while a high count (thrombocytosis) may cause blood clots.

Blood Smear Examination

A blood smear examination is an essential part of CBC. In this test, a drop of blood is placed on a glass slide and stained with special dyes. The slide is then examined under a microscope to check the size, shape, and number of blood cells. This test helps identify abnormal blood cells, such as immature white blood cells or cancer cells.

In conclusion, a complete blood count (CBC) is a vital diagnostic tool used to detect various medical conditions, including leukemia. The white blood cell count, red blood cell count, platelet count, and blood smear examination are essential components of CBC that provide valuable information on an individual’s overall health status.

Bone Marrow Biopsy

Bone Marrow Biopsy

A bone marrow biopsy is a diagnostic test used to determine the presence of leukemia in an individual. This procedure involves taking a small sample of bone marrow from the hip bone using a needle, which is then examined under a microscope by a pathologist.

There are two types of bone marrow biopsies: aspiration and trephine biopsy. In an aspiration biopsy, a syringe is used to draw out a small amount of liquid bone marrow. This method is typically used for patients with suspected acute leukemia or lymphoma.

A trephine biopsy, on the other hand, involves removing a small core of bone and marrow tissue using a hollow needle. This method provides a larger sample of bone marrow for examination and is usually performed when a patient has chronic leukemia or other conditions that affect the bone marrow.

Once the sample has been taken, it is sent to a laboratory for analysis. Immunohistochemistry is often used to examine the sample and identify abnormal cells. This technique uses special antibodies that target specific proteins found on the surface of cells to identify and classify different types of leukemia.

Another technique called fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) can be used to detect genetic abnormalities in the bone marrow cells. This technique involves staining the chromosomes in the sample with fluorescent dyes and examining them under a microscope to look for any changes or rearrangements that may be associated with leukemia.

While a bone marrow biopsy can be an uncomfortable procedure, it is a critical step in the diagnosis and treatment of leukemia. By examining the bone marrow sample, doctors can determine the type and severity of leukemia and develop an appropriate treatment plan for the patient.

Flow Cytometry

Flow Cytometry

Flow cytometry is a diagnostic test used to identify, count, and analyze cells in blood, bone marrow, or other body fluids. This test uses laser technology to detect and measure the physical and chemical characteristics of individual cells as they pass through a fluid stream. Flow cytometry is particularly useful in diagnosing leukemia because it can distinguish between different types of white blood cells based on their immunophenotype.


Immunophenotyping is a technique used in flow cytometry to identify the specific antigens present on the surface of cells. By using fluorescently labeled monoclonal antibodies that bind to specific cell surface markers, flow cytometry can differentiate between different types of cells.

Cell Sorting

Cell sorting is another application of flow cytometry that separates cells based on their size, shape, and surface markers. The process involves using fluorescent dyes or monoclonal antibodies to label cells, and then passing them through a cell sorter that uses an electric charge or a mechanical force to separate the cells into different populations.

Fluorescent Dyes and Monoclonal Antibodies

Fluorescent dyes and monoclonal antibodies are essential components of flow cytometry. Fluorescent dyes are used to label cells and make them visible under the laser light. They emit a specific wavelength of light when excited by the laser, allowing the instrument to detect and measure the cells. Monoclonal antibodies are proteins that specifically target certain surface markers on cells. By conjugating these antibodies with fluorescent dyes, flow cytometry can identify and analyze different cell populations.

In summary, flow cytometry is a powerful diagnostic tool that utilizes immunophenotyping, cell sorting, fluorescent dyes, and monoclonal antibodies to identify, count, and analyze cells. Its ability to differentiate between different types of white blood cells makes it especially valuable for diagnosing leukemia.



Cytogenetics is a branch of genetics that focuses on the study of chromosomal structure, function and behavior. It involves the analysis of chromosomes at the cellular level to identify any abnormalities or changes that may be present, which can help in the diagnosis and treatment of various genetic disorders, including leukemia.


Karyotyping is a technique used in cytogenetics to analyze the number, size, and shape of chromosomes in a cell. The process involves staining the chromosomes with dyes and then arranging them into pairs based on their size, banding patterns, and other characteristics. This technique can identify numerical or structural aberrations in chromosomes that may be associated with certain types of leukemia.

Fluorescence Microscopy

Fluorescence microscopy is a type of microscopy that uses fluorescent dyes or proteins to visualize cellular structures, including chromosomes. In cytogenetics, this technique is used to identify specific regions of chromosomes that may be involved in chromosomal aberrations seen in leukemia. For example, fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) is a method of cytogenetic analysis that uses labeled DNA probes to detect specific gene sequences or chromosomal regions in cells.

Chromosome Analysis

Chromosome analysis is a process that involves the examination of chromosomes to detect structural or numerical abnormalities that may be present in leukemia cells. This can be done through karyotyping or through more advanced techniques such as comparative genomic hybridization (CGH) or spectral karyotyping (SKY). Chromosome analysis can help to identify specific chromosomal abnormalities that are associated with different types of leukemia and can provide important information for diagnosis and treatment.

Molecular Genetic Testing

Molecular genetic testing is a technique that involves the analysis of DNA or RNA to detect specific genetic mutations or alterations that may be involved in the development of leukemia. This type of testing can be used to identify specific gene mutations or chromosomal abnormalities in leukemia cells that may be targeted by specific therapies, such as tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) or monoclonal antibodies. Molecular genetic testing is becoming increasingly important in the diagnosis and treatment of leukemia and other genetic disorders.

In conclusion, cytogenetics plays a crucial role in the diagnosis and treatment of leukemia. Techniques such as karyotyping, fluorescence microscopy, chromosome analysis, and molecular genetic testing can provide valuable information about the structure and behavior of chromosomes in leukemia cells and can help to identify specific genetic mutations or abnormalities that may be targeted by specific therapies.

Treatment Options for Leukemia



Chemotherapy is a common treatment option for leukemia that involves the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. These drugs can be administered orally or through an intravenous (IV) infusion, depending on the type of chemotherapy.

Induction chemotherapy

Induction chemotherapy is the first phase of chemotherapy and is used to rapidly reduce the number of cancer cells in the body. This phase typically lasts 4-6 weeks and is followed by a recovery period. The goal of induction chemotherapy is to induce remission, which means that there are no longer any signs of cancer in the body.

Consolidation chemotherapy

Consolidation chemotherapy is the second phase of chemotherapy and is used to further reduce the number of cancer cells in the body after remission has been achieved. This phase typically lasts several months and can involve the same or different drugs than those used during induction chemotherapy.

Maintenance chemotherapy

Maintenance chemotherapy is the third and final phase of chemotherapy and is used to prevent the return of cancer after remission has been achieved. This phase typically lasts several years and involves lower doses of chemotherapy drugs than those used during induction or consolidation chemotherapy.

Intra-thecal chemotherapy

Intra-thecal chemotherapy involves the administration of chemotherapy drugs directly into the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. This is done through a procedure called a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap. Intra-thecal chemotherapy is typically used for leukemia that has spread to the central nervous system.

While chemotherapy can be effective in killing cancer cells, it can also have side effects such as nausea, fatigue, and hair loss. It is important to work closely with your healthcare team to manage these side effects and ensure the best possible outcome.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy, also known as radiotherapy, is a type of cancer treatment that uses high-energy radiation to destroy cancer cells. It can be used alone or in combination with other treatments such as chemotherapy and surgery.

There are several types of radiation therapy, including external beam radiation therapy, internal radiation therapy, total body irradiation (TBI), and prophylactic cranial irradiation (PCI).

External Beam Radiation Therapy: This is the most common type of radiation therapy. It uses a machine called a linear accelerator to deliver high-energy beams of radiation to the specific area affected by cancer. The machine moves around the patient to deliver radiation from different angles to ensure that the cancer cells receive the maximum dose while minimizing exposure to healthy tissues. External beam radiation therapy is usually given over several weeks, with daily sessions lasting only a few minutes.

Internal Radiation Therapy: Also known as brachytherapy, this type of radiation therapy involves placing radioactive material directly into or near the cancerous tissue. The radioactive material may be in the form of seeds, wires, or catheters that are inserted into the body. Internal radiation therapy is often used to treat cancers of the cervix, prostate, and breast.

Total Body Irradiation (TBI): This type of radiation therapy is used before a stem cell transplant to kill cancer cells and suppress the immune system in preparation for the transplant. TBI involves delivering radiation to the entire body using a special machine that rotates around the patient.

Prophylactic Cranial Irradiation (PCI): This type of radiation therapy is used to prevent or reduce the risk of cancer spreading to the brain. It is usually given after treatment for lung cancer, breast cancer, or leukemia. PCI involves delivering radiation to the whole brain using a special machine.

Radiation therapy can have side effects, which depend on the area being treated and the dose of radiation. Common side effects include fatigue, skin irritation, and nausea. However, advances in radiation therapy techniques have significantly reduced the risk of side effects.

In conclusion, radiation therapy is an effective treatment option for cancer patients. The different types of radiation therapy, including external beam radiation therapy, internal radiation therapy, total body irradiation, and prophylactic cranial irradiation, are used depending on the type and stage of cancer being treated. While radiation therapy can have side effects, it is an important tool for fighting cancer and improving patient outcomes.

Stem Cell Transplant

Stem Cell Transplant

Stem cell transplant, also known as bone marrow transplant, is a procedure that replaces damaged or diseased stem cells with healthy ones. This treatment can be used to treat various types of leukemia, including acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), as well as other blood disorders.

Autologous Transplant

In an autologous transplant, the patient’s own stem cells are collected and stored before undergoing high-dose chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Once the cancer treatment is completed, the stored stem cells are infused back into the patient’s body, where they begin producing healthy blood cells.

Allogeneic Transplant

An allogeneic transplant involves using stem cells from a donor, which can come from a family member or an unrelated donor. This type of transplant can be more effective than an autologous transplant because the donor’s immune system can help destroy any remaining cancer cells in the patient’s body. However, there is a risk of graft-versus-host disease, where the donor’s immune cells attack the patient’s healthy cells.

Haploidentical Transplant

A haploidentical transplant is a type of allogeneic transplant that uses stem cells from a half-matched donor, typically a family member. This type of transplant can be useful when a fully matched donor cannot be found, but it carries a higher risk of complications and may require additional medications to prevent graft-versus-host disease.

Umbilical Cord Blood Transplant

Umbilical cord blood transplant uses stem cells from the umbilical cord and placenta after a baby is born. These cells are frozen and stored for later use in treating blood disorders like leukemia. Since umbilical cord blood has immature immune cells, it can be used in partially matched transplants without as much risk of rejection.

Stem cell transplantation can be a complex and risky procedure, but it can also be life-saving for patients with leukemia. It’s important to work closely with your healthcare team to determine the best type of transplant for your situation and to carefully monitor for any complications during and after the procedure.

Targeted Therapy

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy is a type of cancer treatment that focuses on specific molecules or pathways involved in the growth and survival of cancer cells. Unlike traditional chemotherapy, which targets all rapidly dividing cells, including healthy ones, targeted therapy aims to selectively kill cancer cells while minimizing damage to normal tissues.

There are several types of targeted therapy drugs available for the treatment of leukemia, including tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs), monoclonal antibodies, proteasome inhibitors, and immune checkpoint inhibitors.

Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitors (TKIs)

TKIs are a class of targeted therapy drugs that block the activity of tyrosine kinases, enzymes that play a key role in cell signaling pathways that regulate cell growth and division. By inhibiting tyrosine kinase activity, TKIs can slow or stop the growth of cancer cells.

One example of a TKI used in the treatment of leukemia is imatinib mesylate (Gleevec), which is used to treat chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) by blocking the activity of the BCR-ABL fusion protein.

Monoclonal Antibodies

Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-made proteins that can recognize and bind to specific antigens on cancer cells. By binding to these antigens, monoclonal antibodies can trigger an immune response that results in the destruction of cancer cells.

Examples of monoclonal antibodies used in the treatment of leukemia include rituximab (Rituxan), which binds to CD20 antigens on B-cell lymphoma cells, and alemtuzumab (Campath), which binds to CD52 antigens on leukemia cells.

Proteasome Inhibitors

Proteasome inhibitors are a class of targeted therapy drugs that inhibit the activity of proteasomes, structures that break down proteins in cells. By blocking proteasome activity, these drugs can cause the accumulation of toxic proteins in cancer cells, leading to their death.

Bortezomib (Velcade) is an example of a proteasome inhibitor used in the treatment of multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer that affects plasma cells.

Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors

Immune checkpoint inhibitors are a type of targeted therapy drug that can stimulate the immune system to attack cancer cells. These drugs work by blocking the activity of molecules on the surface of T cells that can inhibit their function, allowing the immune system to mount a stronger response against cancer cells.

While immune checkpoint inhibitors have shown promising results in the treatment of solid tumors, their use in the treatment of leukemia is still being studied in clinical trials.

In summary, targeted therapy offers a promising approach to the treatment of leukemia by selectively targeting cancer cells while sparing normal tissues. By combining different types of targeted therapy drugs, doctors can tailor treatment to the specific needs of each patient.
Leukemia is a complex and serious disease that requires prompt treatment. The symptoms of leukemia can be mistaken for other illnesses, and diagnosis requires specific tests such as CBC, bone marrow biopsy, flow cytometry, and cytogenetics. Treatment options for leukemia include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, stem cell transplant, and targeted therapy. It’s essential to consult with medical professionals to develop a personalized treatment plan, as early intervention can improve outcomes. While being diagnosed with leukemia can be overwhelming, it’s important to know that there are effective treatments available. With ongoing research and advancements in technology, we hope to continue improving the quality of life for those affected by this disease.

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