Leukemia is a cancer that starts in blood cells. When the cancerous blood cells overtake healthy ones, your bone marrow can’t make enough red and white blood cells to carry oxygen to other organs, fight infections or form blood clots when you need them. Your chances of survival depend on the type of leukemia and what stage it is when you are diagnosed.
In leukemia, doctors use a system of stages to describe how far the cancer has spread and how fast it’s growing. Unlike some other cancers, which are staged based on the size of tumors and how they’ve spread, leukemia is usually staged based on what the disease does to your blood cells and whether or not the leukemia cells form a mass in the bone marrow.
The most common way to diagnose leukemia is through a physical exam, a complete blood count and a sample of the fluid that’s in your bone marrow, called a bone marrow aspiration. Your doctor will numb your hip bone before using a hollow needle to remove the fluid.
For stage 0 and 1 CLL, which is also known as Rai staging, there are more lymphocytes in your blood and bone marrow than normal, but the number of red blood cells and platelets is near normal. Your lymph nodes, spleen and liver may or may not be enlarged. For stage III and IV, which is also called Binet staging, there’s less of a difference between the numbers of lymphocytes and the other blood cells, but you may have anemia or trouble with clotting.