Symptoms and Diagnosis

During the early stages of leukemia, there may be no symptoms. Many of the symptoms of leukemia don't become apparent until a large number of normal blood cells are crowded out by leukemia cells.

Symptoms of Chronic and Acute Leukemia

In chronic leukemia, symptoms develop gradually and are generally not as severe as in acute leukemia. Chronic leukemia is usually found during a routine doctor's exam before symptoms are present. When symptoms appear, they generally are mild at first and gradually get worse, but sometimes they don't worsen until many years after an initial diagnosis.

Recently, researchers discovered that abnormal white blood cells can be present in the blood of chronic lymphocytic leukemia patients more than six years before a diagnosis. This finding may lead to a better understanding of the cellular changes that occur in the earliest stages of the disease and how the disease progresses.

In acute leukemia, symptoms usually appear and get worse quickly. People with this disease usually go to their doctor because they feel sick.

White Blood Cell Levels May Be High

People with leukemia may have very high levels of white blood cells, but because the cells are abnormal, they are unable to fight infection. Therefore, patients may develop frequent fevers or infections. A shortage of red blood cells, called anemia, can cause a person to feel tired. Not having enough blood platelets may cause a person to bleed and bruise easily.

Some symptoms depend on where leukemia cells collect in the body. Leukemia cells can collect in many different tissues and organs, such as the digestive tract, kidneys, lungs, lymph nodes, or other parts of the body, including the eyes, brain, and testicles.

Other Common Symptoms

Other common symptoms of leukemia include headache, weight loss, pain in the bones or joints, swelling or discomfort in the abdomen (from an enlarged spleen), and swollen lymph nodes, especially in the neck or armpit. Symptoms of acute leukemia may include vomiting, confusion, loss of muscle control, and seizures.

Some of the symptoms of leukemia are similar to those caused by the flu or other common diseases, so these symptoms are not sure signs of leukemia. It is important to check with your doctor if you have these symptoms. Only a doctor can diagnose and treat leukemia.

Diagnosing Leukemia: Physical Exam, Blood Tests, Biopsy

To find the cause of leukemia symptoms, the doctor will ask about medical history and conduct a physical exam. During the exam, the doctor will check for signs of disease such as lumps, swelling in the lymph nodes, spleen, and liver, or anything else that seems unusual.

The doctor will need to do blood tests that check the levels and types of blood cells and look for changes in the shape of blood cells. The doctor also may look at certain factors in the blood to see if leukemia has affected other organs such as the liver or kidneys.

Even if blood tests suggest leukemia, the doctor may look for signs of leukemia in the bone marrow by doing a biopsy before making a diagnosis. A biopsy is a procedure where a small amount of bone marrow is removed from a bone. A pathologist examines the sample under a microscope to look for abnormal cells.

There are two ways the doctor can obtain bone marrow. In a bone marrow aspiration, marrow is collected by inserting a needle into the hipbone or another large bone and removing a small amount of bone marrow. A bone marrow biopsy is performed with a larger needle and removes bone marrow and a small piece of bone.

If Leukemia Cells Are Found

If leukemia cells are found in the bone marrow sample, the doctor may perform more tests to determine if the disease has spread to other parts of the body. The doctor may collect a sample of the fluid around the brain and spinal cord by performing a spinal tap and checking for leukemia cells or other signs of problems.

Chest X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, and ultrasounds are tests used to determine if leukemia has spread from the bone marrow. These tests produce pictures of the inside of the body. With these tests, the doctor looks for abnormalities such as enlarged organs or signs of infection.