Diagnosing acute myeloid leukaemia 

In the initial stages of diagnosing acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), your GP will check for physical signs of the condition and arrange for you to have blood tests.

A high number of abnormal white blood cells, or a very low blood count in the test sample, could indicate the presence of leukaemia. If this is the case, you'll be urgently referred to a haematologist (a specialist in treating blood conditions).

A haematologist may carry out further blood tests, in addition to some of the tests outlined below.

Bone marrow biopsy

To confirm a diagnosis of AML, the haematologist will take a small sample of your bone marrow to examine under a microscope. This procedure is known as a bone marrow biopsy, which is usually carried out under a local anaesthetic

The haematologist will numb an area of skin at the back of your hip bone, before using a thin needle to remove a sample of liquid bone marrow. In some cases, a larger needle may also be used to remove a small amount of bone and bone marrow together.

You won't feel any pain during the procedure, but you may experience some bruising and discomfort for a few days afterwards. The procedure takes around 15 minutes to complete, and you shouldn't have to stay in hospital overnight.

The bone marrow sample will be checked for cancerous cells. If cancerous cells are present, the biopsy can also be used to determine the type of leukaemia you have.

Further tests

Additional tests can be used to reveal more information about the progress and extent of your AML. They can also provide an insight into how the condition should be treated. These tests are described below.

Genetic testing

Genetic tests can be carried out on blood and bone marrow samples to identify the genetic makeup of the cancerous cells. There are many specific genetic variations that can occur in AML, and knowing the exact type of AML you have can help doctors make decisions about the most appropriate treatment.

For example, people who have a type of AML known as acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APML) are known to respond well to a medicine called All Trans-Retinoic Acid (ATRA).

Scans

If you have AML, a computerised tomography (CT) scanX-ray or echocardiogram (an ultrasound scan of the heart) may be used to check that your organs, such as your heart and lungs, are healthy.

These tests are carried out because it's important for doctors to assess your general health before they can decide on the most appropriate treatment for you.

Lumbar puncture

In rare situations where it's thought there's a risk that AML has spread to your nervous system, a lumbar puncture may be carried out. In this procedure, a needle is used to extract a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (which surrounds and protects your spine) from your back, so it can be checked for cancerous cells.

If cancerous cells are found in your nervous system, you may need to have injections of chemotherapy medication directly into your cerebrospinal fluid as part of your treatment.

Coping with your diagnosis

Dealing with a diagnosis of leukaemia isn't easy. Being diagnosed with AML can be particularly difficult, because the condition usually comes on suddenly and treatment has to be started quickly.

This can be upsetting and confusing. However, finding out what type of leukaemia you have, what treatment you need and how treatment will affect you can help you cope better and feel more in control.

The Cancer Research UK website has more information and advice about coping with AML.

Page last reviewed: 14/03/2016

Next review due: 01/03/2019