How to Read Blood Test Results

how to read blood test

Prior to every chemotherapy treatment and now every appointment with my oncologist, I have to get a blood test. Why, you ask?  Well, blood tests, sometimes called blood panels, are one of a physician’s most basic tools  to see a detailed analysis of any disease (e.g., cancer) markers, the nutrients and waste products in your blood as well as how certain organs (e.g., liver and kidneys) are functioning.

I’ve heard blood test results referred to as “alphabet soup.” Ha! Ha! Not too far off. It’s important, however, to understand your blood results (at least at the basic level). Knowing how to read a blood panel is an empowering Silver Lining – after all, the status of YOUR health is what is being evaluated.

Recently, I wrote about Cancer Tumor Markers. They are often one aspect of a blood testing (only if you’ve had cancer, though) and their explanation can be found by clicking here.

The “Complete Blood Count” or CBC, is another test that you’re likely to see on your blood test results. The CBC measures the amount of three types of cells in your blood: red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Prior to each chemotherapy or radiation treatment cancer, the doctor will most likely ask for a CBC to determine if the body is strong enough to endure another treatment. A CBC may also be used to track the progress of treatments.

Here’s the thing: if your numbers are off a little bit, don’t be alarmed. What is considered a “normal” range may vary depending on the lab but general guidelines for what to look for include:

Red Blood Cells (RBC’s) also called erythrocytes carry oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. They are the most common type of blood cell.

    • A normal RBC range for men is: 4.5 to 6.2 million per microliter
    • A normal RBC range for women is: 4.2 to 5.4 million per microliter
    • Red blood cells contain hemoglobin (HgB), which makes blood bright red.  Hemoglobin has a HUGE job: it delivers oxygen from the lungs to the entire body; then it returns to the lungs with carbon dioxide, which we exhale. Healthy hemoglobin levels vary by gender.
    • A low RBC count, known as anemia, leads to low oxygen in the blood, which creates a loss of energy, strength and stamina. Some people may also feel weak and dizzy.

White Blood Cell (WBC) count also called a leukocyte count, measures the number of WBC’s in the blood. White blood cells fight disease by killing bacteria, combating allergic reactions, and destroying old and/or damaged cells.

    • A normal WBC range for men and women is 3,300 to 8.700 per microliter
    • A low WBC count equals susceptibility to infection as WBC’s attack invading bacteria, viruses, and other foreign material in the body
    • A reading of 1000 WBC’s is the lowest level safe from infection

Platelets are components of red blood cells that help stop bleeding by enabling blood to clot. A normal platelet range for men and women is 150,000 to 450,000 per microliter

    • A low platelet count can lead to bruising and bleeding
    • 100,000 is the lowest level at which blood can clot normally
    • 50,000 is the level associated with risk of spontaneous bleeding
    • 5,000 is the level at which bleeding can become life-threatening

Sometimes blood counts are too low to be able to handle certain treatment, e.g., chemotherapy. In certain circumstances, a physician may prescribe medications called growth factors to stimulate the growth of certain types of blood cells. Examples of growth factors include:

  • Procrit (chemical name: epoetin alfa), Epogen (chemical name: epoetin alfa), or Aranesp (chemical name: darbepoetin alfa) to increase red blood cell counts
  • Neumega (chemical name: oprelvekin) to increase platelet counts
  • Neupogen (chemical name: filgrastim) to boost white blood cell levels

Questions to ask your doctor about your blood tests:

  • Why do I need this test?
  • Can I eat or drink before the test?
  • How long does it take to receive the results?
  • Will I need additional tests? If so, what kind and when?
  • Would you please explain what the results say about my health?
  • If my blood counts are too low, can I still get treatment?

….and in case you want to print it out and take it with you,

Questions to ask your doctor,

From the time I first started writing The Silver Pen – way back when – I have advocated for keeping a complete copy of your medical record. This is so important!  Including each and every test result – including blood tests – is a key component of your medical record.


Leave a comment


  1. Lori Hendershot says

    Yes, I too found it helpful to keep all records. I kept them in a notebook by date. When it came time to fill out insurance papers I had a detailed description of dates and diagnoses right i front of me. I jotted notes when I and who I filed insurance papers on so I didn’t dilemma twice. Many times when consulting with a new doctor I would forget treatments and drugs and such but I would take these with me to new consults and it was all there in a notebook. Also and most important was when we traveled we would have a folder with just current tests both blood and scans, so if a doctor was needed in another town, state, or country we had them with us. This goes for anyone really. You are your own advocate, be proactive!
    We found nurses are human and make mistakes and when my husband first started chemo treatment I asked every time, “what are you giving him and what for?”. If it wasn’t on the list I asked them to double check. Twice it was wrong. Once they get to know you, they know your treatment plan and unles the dr changes it, it becomes pretty routine. You learn the names of them and know as well if it’s right.

    • silverpen says

      Thanks for writing, Lori!
      I wholeheartedly agree that you are indeed your own advocate.
      Please take good care…and best wishes to your husband as well!

  2. says

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  3. Sharan Kalvig says

    Venipuncture is useful as it is a relatively non-invasive way to obtain cells and extracellular fluid (plasma) from the body for analysis. Since blood flows throughout the body, acting as a medium for providing oxygen and nutrients, and drawing waste products back to the excretory systems for disposal, the state of the bloodstream affects, or is affected by, many medical conditions. For these reasons, blood tests are the most commonly performed medical tests.;`:..

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  4. Courtney W says

    Hello, I am relatively new to this site. I am a 2 month old Non- Hodgins Lymphoma Survivor. I still have to go in every 3 months for a maintenance treatment and get my blood drawn beforehand. Thank you for the great explanation. Why do I need a copy of my medical record? Thanks!

    • says

      Hi Courtney,
      Welcome to The Silver Pen! Thank you for your comment.
      You ask an excellent question about Medical Records. As patients, we have to be our own advocate. In this capacity, keeping (& reading) your entire medical record is a huge step toward empowerment. Knowing your medical history enables you to be an active participant in developing your own plan of care. According to federal law, we have the right to get copies of most medical records, whether they are paper copies, or electronic health records. Doctors' notes, medical test results, lab reports and billing information must be supplied to us if we ask properly. Sometimes there is a fee, but it is absolutely worth it.
      Thanks for asking this question. It has inspired me to do a post dedicated to this important topic.

  5. Michael says

    Thank you so much for posting this. My wife was diagnosed with BC in March. She is scheduled for a bi-lateral mastectomy tomorrow morning, May 8. We have no idea what the future holds, but I'm sure the info you provided here will prove to be very helpful to us. I've been following your blog, and many others, in an attempt to gain more insight about BC. Thanks again.

    • says

      Absolutely, Michael. Sending all of my very best wishes for your wife's surgery tomorrow! Please please please advocate for pain management + colace AND senekot (to prevent the constipation that is automatically caused by pain medicine). If there is anything at all that I can do to support you all, please do let me know.
      Please take good care…

      • Michael says

        Thank you for the kind words and suggestions. I've read your story and I truly admire your courage and dedication. My wife and I have been married 38 years this month. Her diagnosis has taken a toll on both of us. I want so much to help my wife, but find this world of breast cancer to be a somewhat lonely place for husbands. Most of the dialogue regarding BC is found in venues where women with BC inevitably make up the majority of participants. Despite the fact that men can also get BC, I find it to be a uniquely female disease. I certainly don't mean that in any sexist context. It's just awkward for a male–especially a male without the disease–to engage with BC survivors without a sense of imposing. I often feel like I'm meddling. I even feel strangely voyeuristic at times. It's hard to find a place to fit in. Even worse, I feel as though I'm betraying the male stereotype by trying.
        Anyway, thank you again for your courteous reply.

        • says

          Dear Michael,
          Thank you so much for your note. 38 years? Wow. Absolutely amazing! Congratulations.
          Your reflections could not be more right on. I am so grateful to you for sharing them and for trying to find a place to fit in.
          Please stay in touch and know that you are welcome – so very welcome – here on The Silver Pen!
          In fact, you have inspired me to write a blog post about this very topic. So, I thank YOU.
          All my best wishes,

        • Ines Cifuentes says

          Dear Michael,
          There is an excellent book "Breast Cancer Husband: How to help your wife (and yourself) through diagnosis, treatment and beyond" by Marc Silver. My husband and I found it helpful.

          Good luck. My husband and I just celebrated our 30th. We are living with a recurrence of my breast cancer that has spread to my bones, liver, pancreas. It sucks but my oncologists are doing a good job of keeping me alive.