Blood Cancer Screenings and Exams

Because each type of blood cancer is unique, the diagnostic process is complex.

Details that help your doctor detect what type of blood cancer you have include:

  • The types of cells involved in the cancer.
  • The ways that blood cancer can spread.
  • Genetic associations with certain types of blood cancer.

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center’s vast resources give you access to every diagnostic technique, from simple blood tests to the most leading-edge technologies.

Contact us to learn more about blood cancer screenings at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center by calling 412-647-2811.

Common Tests for Blood Cancers

Blood tests can include a complete blood count (CBC).

This shows your levels of:

  • Red blood cells
  • White blood cells
  • Platelets
  • Hemoglobin — the protein that carries oxygen to your tissues
  • Hematocrit — a measure of red blood cells in relation to the amount of plasma

An abnormal number or proportion of any of these can mean the presence of blood cancer.

Blood tests can also assess the blood’s ability to clot properly.

A pathologist can also view a sample of your blood under a microscope. He or she will check the shape of the red blood cells and count the white blood cells.

Pathologists use flow cytometry to look for certain proteins on the surface of the cells. By tagging a specific antibody with fluorescent dye, they can see if it's able to locate the proteins in question.

Genetic testing for specific mutations and molecular markers can reveal damaged chromosomes that cause certain blood cancers.

Having a blood sample drawn is a simple, routine test.

Your doctor may order a bone marrow biopsy. This test can reveal whether your white blood cells are behaving abnormally.

The procedure involves removing a sample of bone marrow with a special needle.

Your anesthesia provider will talk with you about your options for pain control during the test. Often, he or she will numb your rear hipbone.

You may need to stop taking certain drugs — such as blood thinners — a few days before the biopsy.

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center experts are highly skilled in performing excisional (lymph node) and incisional (tumor sample) biopsies. Lymph node biopsy is a useful tool for staging cancer.

In this common procedure, the surgeon will remove either an entire lymph node or part of large tumor. He or she then sends the node or sample to the lab for testing.

These biopsies are often outpatient procedures under local anesthesia.

If your doctor uses general anesthesia, you may need to have your biopsy at the hospital. You may also need to stop taking some medications before the test.

In many cases, our surgeons perform the surgery laparoscopically through small “keyhole” incisions. This minimally invasive approach can reduce recovery time.

Your doctor will explain how your test results dictate the stage of your blood cancer and help guide your treatment plan.

This minimally invasive test involves inserting a very thin, hollow needle into the lymph node or tumor. Your doctor attaches the needle to a syringe and uses it to remove a small tissue sample.

A core needle biopsy is like FNA but uses a larger needle to withdraw a larger sample.

Your doctor will numb the area where he or she will perform the biopsy. Pain is usually minor.

Your doctor may order diagnostic imaging tests to get pictures of certain areas of your body where blood cancer may be present. These tests can help doctors learn if the cancer is progressing and affecting other parts or systems of your body.

Some imaging tests involve a shot of a safe radioactive dye. The dye attaches to relevant structures to create pictures with a special camera.

Some tests to detect and survey blood cancer include:

  • Bone scan, which reveals problems in the bones caused by cancer.
  • CT scan, which allows doctors to view soft tissue structures with cross-sectional pictures.
  • Gallium scan, which reveals infected lymph tissue.
  • MRI scan, which uses radio waves and a strong magnet combined with computer enhancement to take detailed pictures.
  • PET scan, which shows how fast cancer cells are growing.
  • Ultrasound, which takes pictures using sound waves.
  • X-ray, which can reveal enlarged lymph nodes.

Blood cancer can spread to the chest (pleural cavity) or abdomen (peritoneal cavity), causing a build-up of fluid. Your surgeon can test this fluid to check for cancer cells.

Using ultrasound for guidance, he or she inserts a hollow needle into the chest or stomach and removes a sample. You likely will receive a local anesthetic.

Your surgeon can do fluid sampling as an inpatient or outpatient procedure. You may need to stop taking some medications ahead of time.

A spinal tap — or lumbar puncture — shows if cancer cells have spread to the cerebrospinal fluid.

The anesthesia provider will numb an area of your back along your spine. Your doctor will insert a special needle to withdraw the fluid.

Some people experience headaches and nausea after a lumbar puncture. Your care team can help with these after-affects.