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Hairy cell leukaemia tests

Men and women discussing hairy cell leukaemia

This page tells you what happens when you go to your doctor with symptoms that could be due to hairy cell leukaemia. There is information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Going to your GP

If you have worrying symptoms, you usually begin by seeing your family doctor. Your GP will examine you, ask about your general health and ask about your symptoms. Your GP may order a blood test. Some people with HCL don’t have any symptoms and sometimes doctors diagnose hairy cell leukaemia by chance, after a routine blood test at the hospital. 

If your GP suspects that you have leukaemia, they will refer you to a specialist called a haematologist. Haematologists are doctors who treat diseases of the blood. Your haematologist will need to order some tests. These might include blood tests, and an ultrasound or CT scan of your liver and spleen.

You may also have bone marrow tests. The doctor puts a thin needle into one of your bones to draw out some of the liquid bone marrow in the centre. This is called a bone marrow aspiration. Often they use another needle to take a small sample of bone and marrow together. This is called a bone marrow biopsy. Usually, the doctor takes the samples from one of your hip bones using a local anaesthetic.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Diagnosing hairy cell leukaemia section.

 

 

Going to your GP

If you have worrying symptoms, you usually begin by seeing your family doctor. Your GP will examine you, ask about your general health and ask about your symptoms. This will include

  • What your symptoms are
  • When you get them
  • Whether anything you do makes them better or worse

Your doctor will examine you by

  • Feeling for swollen organs or glands
  • Looking for signs of abnormal bleeding

Your GP may order a blood test. Some people with HCL don’t have any symptoms and sometimes doctors diagnose hairy cell leukaemia by chance, after a routine blood test.

 

What will happen at the hospital

If your GP suspects that you have leukaemia, they will refer you to a specialist called a haematologist. Haematologists are doctors who treat diseases of the blood. Your haematologist will arrange some tests.

 

The tests you may have

Blood tests

The doctor or nurse will take a small amount of blood from a vein in your arm, using a needle and syringe. The blood goes to the laboratory, where a haematologist will look at it under a microscope.

The results show the numbers of different blood cells in your blood sample. This is called a full blood cell count (FBC). The pathologist will also judge whether the cells look normal or not.

Your doctor might also do blood tests to see how well your liver and kidneys are working.

Bone marrow test

Blood cells grow in the bone marrow. Your specialist may want to look at a sample of your bone marrow, to check for signs of disease. You may hear this test called a

  • Bone marrow aspiration
  • Bone marrow biopsy or trephine biopsy

In a bone marrow aspiration, the doctor puts a thin needle into one of your bones to draw out some of the liquid bone marrow in the centre. Usually, the doctor takes the sample from one of your hip bones using a local anaesthetic.

In a bone marrow biopsy, the doctor uses a slightly larger needle to remove a small amount of bone and marrow together. The doctor usually does an aspiration and biopsy at the same time. 

Ultrasound or CT scan

Ultrasound tests use high frequency sound waves to create a picture of the body’s organs. You may have an ultrasound or CT of your liver and spleen. You may not need this test if your doctor already felt an enlarged liver or spleen during your physical examination.

CT scans are a type of computerised X-ray. They can show up groups of enlarged lymph nodes around the body, as well as abnormalities in body organs.

For information about having any of these tests go to the about cancer tests section.

 

Getting the results

Your doctor will ask you to go back to the hospital when your test results have come through. But this may take a little time, even if only a few days. This is a very anxious time for most people. While you are waiting for results it may help to talk to a close friend, relative or your specialist nurse about how you are feeling. You may want to contact a cancer support group to talk to someone who has been through the same experiences.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use CancerChat, our online forum. Our chronic leukaemia organisations page gives details of people who can help and support you. You can also find details of counselling organisations in our counselling section.  

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Updated: 2 April 2015