Leukemia Symptoms and Diagnosis

For some people, the symptoms of leukemia are painfully acute, while other times the symptoms are so subtle that they go unnoticed for years or even decades. Leukemia is widely recognized as one of the deadliest cancers in existence, but diagnosis of this terrible condition is difficult because its symptoms are so similar to a wide variety of other, less dangerous diseases.
Some common symptoms of leukemia include:

  • Fever, chills, and other flu-like symptoms;
  • Weakness and fatigue;
  • Loss of appetite and/or weight;
  • Swollen or bleeding gums;
  • Sweating, especially at night;
  • Bone or joint pain.
  • Headache, paralysis, seizures due to involvement of the brain (acute leukemias)
  • Swelling of the testicle(s).
  • Skin symptoms

A doctor will run a variety of tests to rule out other conditions if you have a combination of these symptoms. An elevated white blood cell count would indicate over-production by the bone marrow, but this test alone does not diagnose leukemia. Taking a small piece of the bone marrow in a test called a bone marrow biopsy will reveal any unhealthy activity or tissues. Unfortunately, these tests are very painful, and often deter otherwise healthy patients from submitting to the proper examinations they need.

Screening for Leukemia

Because of the difficulty in initially diagnosing leukemia, many patients have to go through extensive screening processes to ensure they actually have the condition before doctors can proceed with treatment. The various types of leukemia combined with the comparatively mild symptoms often perplex doctors unless they know exactly what to look for. Unfortunately, many types of leukemia are often misdiagnosed as other, lesser conditions because of the difficulty of discerning what is leukemia and what is not.

Leukemia screening is used to determine who is at risk for leukemia before they exhibit any symptoms. Doctors take into account medical and family history, high risk occupations, and previous exposure to dangerous chemicals such as benzene to judge whether or not an individual is at risk of developing this dangerous disease. Although leukemia is notoriously difficult to diagnose, proper screening gives doctors enough forewarning to provide more treatment options and emotional counseling for people facing a prolonged medical battle.

Leukemia Diagnosis

Leukemia is a very difficult condition to diagnose for a variety of reasons. Many of the symptoms of chronic leukemia are so slight that they go unnoticed for years, and sometimes even decades. Should a patient suffer any symptoms, they are easily confused with lesser conditions. The fever, nausea, sleeplessness, and loss of appetite of leukemia are easily attributable to a cold or the flu, and short of expensive and sometimes painful medical tests, leukemia frequently goes undiagnosed. This is due to the fact that the affected bone marrow may only produce a limited number of unhealthy white blood cells over a period of time, but the body is not affected by this small amount. Acute leukemia is much easier to diagnose, but it is also far more dangerous.

A few tests will reveal if there is a chance that a patient might have leukemia. The first and simplest is called a total white blood cell count. Unhealthy bone marrow produces either too many or too few white blood cells, but other variables such as the patient's general health, history of infections, and some medications can affect the number of blood cells. If a doctor still suspects leukemia, a bone marrow biopsy will reveal the presence of unhealthy tissue, and further aid in diagnosis. A biopsy is a rather painful procedure, and doctors will only resort to it if they feel justified.

After a bone marrow biopsy, doctors can try and determine the cause of irregular levels of blood cells. If caused by cancerous bone marrow, further investigation will reveal the type of leukemia so that doctors can provide the correct treatment. Should a patient suffer from acute leukemia, which most often afflicts young children and older adults, doctors need to take immediate action before the cancer overwhelms the delicate bodies of these fragile patients. A diagnosis of chronic leukemia is more difficult; often, doctors take a "wait and see" approach, for many common cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation have little effect on early stage chronic leukemia. In any case, a diagnosis of leukemia is emotionally devastating, and life will never be the same.

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Leukemia Symptoms & Leukemia Diagnosis page last updated on 6/15/06. Resource4Leukemia.com