Quick disclaimer (and humble brag): I’ve been able to accurately “diagnose” a few things before the medical staff treating my husband. That being said, the only medical school in my repertoire is Google and the only accredited degree I hold is in the very closely related film & television arts.
Now that we have that out of the way, here’s why it’s important to understand lab results…
If you’re like me, you assume a lot about medicine. You probably assume doctors have access to a program where they can easily identify trends. They don’t. They look to see if anything’s in the out-of-normal range as they happen and if something is off (or trending in the wrong direction) but they don’t catch it, it can cause real problems. Being a proactive patient in this scenario can only benefit you.
I know this because Jeff had blood work that should’ve alerted his physician to his cancer back in March of 2015. His doctor noticed the high WBC (White Blood Cell counts) and noted that it likely signified a virus but did not catch his incredibly low HGB (Hemoglobin) which should have been a red flag for additional testing. That was enough reason for me to learn the meaning of every acronym and how they relate to each other.
Alright, enough explanation. Let’s run through the big ones. Don’t feel intimidated.
(me in June of 2015)
When a doctor orders lab work he will likely, first and foremost, order CBCs – the Complete Blood Count. I’ve found the below to be the most important parts of the CBCs:
WBC (White Blood Cells): a high white cell count can signify anything from an infection, to a virus, to inflammation, to cancer. If your white cell count is high, you can look at the results that follow the white cell count to get more of an idea of what is going on – the results I’m referring to are Lymphocytes, Neutrophils, Eosinophils. Each of those cell types have a different purpose when it comes to attacking things in the body that shouldn’t be there. I’m going to stop here on the high white blood cell counts so your eyes don’t glaze over.
A low white cell count leaves you to prone to infection. This normally occurs right after chemotherapy and that’s why, post chemo, Neupogen shots are given. Neupogen shots make sure your ‘good’ white cells replicate quickly so you aren’t compromised. These shots cause bone pain (because of the white cell count being forced to quickly grow in the bone marrow) and generally suck.
Hgb (Hemoglobin): Chemo can cause anemia aka low hemoglobin, and so can cancer. This seems like a good time to mention that the more you learn about lab results, the more you’ll realize that a single result can point you in a handful of different directions. If you suffer from anxiety, good luck.
A high hemoglobin can signify something called Polycythemia. Then again, it could be that you are dehydrated so that your lab results are just falsely high.
Platelet: Platelets prevent you from literally bleeding out. Without the ability of your blood to clot, you’re in big trouble. The normal platelet count (by MD Anderson standards) is 140-440. Jeff’s platelets like to hover around 40, which sounds insanely low, but a lot of patients don’t even have results of 10 and need replacements daily. Platelets are hard to come by and it can often take 3-4 donors to make a single bag of platelets. Now that you know this, you’ll hopefully feel inclined to donate platelets, which you can find out how to do here: Donate Platelets
Now for my absolute favorite…
LDH (Lactate Dehydrogenase): it’s a lab result with an identity crisis. It has no idea what it’s signifying, but it’s there and it’s gonna love watching you lose sleep at night. High LDH! What could it be? It could be the chemotherapy working, could be cancer growing, could be an impending heart attack, sepsis, a virus taking over, who knows! It simply signifies cells being destroyed and it’s the most ridiculous of them all.
Creatinine: Having creatinine be a little low doesn’t normally signify a huge problem, high creatinine tends to be a problem. The kidneys are under stress for some reason (like a blockage, or medication toxicity) and they’re going to start getting cranky. When they start getting cranky you have to find ways of removing some of the stress or they’ll eventually shut down, leading to kidney failure, dialysis, and eventually a transplant. eGFR is another way this is monitored, but it’s taken less seriously than creatinine.
eGFR: This monitors the filtration rate of the kidneys. You’ll watch these numbers slowly decline if the creatinine is high (not confusing at all, thanks!) but the difference with this result is that it takes other lab results into account. It should be monitored to better identify kidney stress, even when creatinine is in the normal limits.
The normal eGFR for Jeff was 185, but the normal population eGFR is around 107 (that’s by MD Anderson standards). So, when Jeff and I saw his eGFR hit 110 one day, we knew his kidneys were not happy. The doctors would have not caught this because he was still in normal range to them, but we’d been steadily tracking it. They quickly made some substitutions to solve the problem when realizing the decline was after taking a new, high toxicity medication.
Bilirubin, AST, and ALT: These are liver lab results. When they’re high, it could be anything from drug toxicity, to liver cancer, to Graft versus Host disease. When one organ is under too much stress, the rest usually follow. When Jeff’s kidneys were unable to handle the toxic burden of medications we often watched these numbers slowly creep up.
Protein: Gastrointestinal issues often cause low protein. When the intestinal walls thicken, they can’t absorb as much protein. The malnutrition caused by this can also have an affect on your electrolyte panel – sodium, potassium, calcium – you’ll likely need replacements via pill or IV.
Albumin: Low protein causes low albumin. It’s a problem because low albumin causes something known as ‘third spacing’ – that’s when fluids no longer hydrate your organs and actually sit in places like your feet. This is called nephrotic syndrome and can be extremely uncomfortable. There’s no cure except for to figure out the underlying problem and fixing that. Now you’re on the journey of trying to figure that out. Great.
Now that you know what is low or high in your lab results and your symptoms, you can take to Google (but ONLY MEDICAL PAPERS – NO WEBSITES). Part of the challenge is finding free medical papers. Some want payment. I find this ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as learning how political medical papers are, with doctors fighting over who gets to be lead author on the research.
I plan to fight for all free medical information – but right now Jeff has to get over this GHVD, first things first.
You’ll quickly find that a lot of symptoms and/or lab results add up to be the same things. That’s why WebMD makes hypochondriacs.
But good doctors will listen to why you think symptoms are adding up to a certain diagnosis. Chances are, they’ll give you piece of mind as to why it’s not what you think it is – you know, because they spent years in medical school where they’ve had to learn all of the small details surrounding what makes up a particular diagnosis.
And try to keep in mind you don’t want to be the patient advocate that cries wolf to the point that no one takes you seriously (although I know first hand it’s undoubtedly difficult when you feel like you know what is suddenly wrong and it needs to be fixed immediately). Always check your sources, do your own research, trust your intuition, advocate, advocate, ADVOCATE.