Bone marrow tests and cancer diagnosis

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Bone marrow tests allow the doctor to look at the cells in your bone marrow to make a diagnosis. Read more about bone marrow, how bone marrow tests are done and what to expect after the test.

Key points

  • Bone marrow is made of spongy bone and liquid and is found inside big bones such as your pelvis (hip bones). Bone marrow is where your blood cells are made.
  • Bone marrow tests examine your bone marrow. Usually the sample of bone marrow comes from your pelvis.
  • These tests help doctors diagnose cancers of the blood such as leukemia or lymphoma or to see whether a different type of cancer has metastasized (spread) to your bone marrow.
  • You will receive an anaesthetic before the test so that you do not feel pain.

What is a bone marrow test?

There are two main types of bone marrow tests.

  • Bone marrow aspiration: In this test, the doctor will use a needle to take out (aspirate) some of your liquid bone marrow.
  • Bone marrow biopsy: In this test, the doctor will use a needle to take very tiny pieces of your spongy bone marrow.

Sometimes you only need an aspiration, but other times both tests are done at once. The tests may be done on one side or sometimes on both sides of your body.

Why do I need a bone marrow test?

Bone marrow tests are done so that doctors can look at the types, shapes and sizes of the cells in your bone marrow. They can also look at the DNA inside the cells. This can help doctors figure out what type of cancer you have or whether cancer from another part of your body has spread (metastasized) to your bone marrow. This is really important for planning your treatment.

Remember: DNA is inside our cells and contains genes. DNA is like instructions for our cells that tell them what to do and how and when to do it.

Bone marrow
The bigger bones of the body, like the pelvis, contain bone marrow. The bone marrow produces blood cells.

How are bone marrow tests done?

Bone marrow tests are usually done in either an operating room or a special treatment room. Most teenagers are given an anaesthetic so that you will not feel pain. Once the anaesthetic is working, the test will begin. It usually takes between 10 and 15 minutes to extract the bone marrow.

The doctor or nurse practitioner will ask you to lie on your side. You will need to lie very still. Then the doctor or nurse practitioner will uncover the lower part of your back and clean the skin (which might feel cold) over the area where they will do the test.

If you decide to stay awake for the procedure, you will have a local anaesthetic to numb the area. You may feel some pressure as they push the needle through the skin and into your iliac crest (the top of your hip bone, at the back). They may do both a bone marrow aspiration and biopsy at the same time. The bone marrow sample will be sent to a lab where a pathologist will look at it under a microscope.

After a bone marrow test

You will have a bandage covering the area where the needle went in. You might feel sore for a few days. If you are sore you can use medication for the pain.

You will probably have to wait one to two days for the results of the bone marrow aspiration test and up to one week for the bone marrow biopsy.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019