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.
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,
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.