Acute myeloid leukaemiaDiagnosis

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.

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 leukaemia.

If this is the case, you'll be urgently referred to a a specialist in treating blood conditions (haematologist).

A haematologist may carry out further tests.

Bone marrow biopsy

To confirm a diagnosis of AML, a small sample of your bone marrow will be taken to examine under a microscope. This procedure is known as a bone marrow biopsy. 

The doctor or nurse 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, they'll remove bone and bone marrow together.

You will not feel any pain during the procedure, but it can feel uncomfortable when the sample is being taken.

You may also have bruising and discomfort for a few days afterwards.

The procedure takes around 20 to 30 minutes.

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

Other tests can be used to get more information about the progress and extent of your AML. They can also help decide how it should be treated.

Genetic testing

Genetic tests can be carried out on blood and bone marrow samples to find out what type of AML you have. This can help doctors make decisions about the most appropriate treatment.

Scans

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

These tests help doctors assess your general health before they 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 the fluid that surrounds and protects your spine (cerebrospinal fluid) so it can be checked for cancerous cells.

If cancerous cells are found in your nervous system, it may affect your treatment.

Coping with your diagnosis

Being diagnosed with AML can be particularly difficult, as the condition usually comes on suddenly and treatment has to be started quickly.

This can be upsetting and confusing. But 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: 28/02/2019
Next review due: 28/02/2022