What is a complete blood count?

A complete blood count, often referred to as a CBC, is a common blood test. A CBC provides detailed information about three types of cells in your blood:
red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy often destroy these normal cells while eliminating cancer cells. It is important you understand how each cell works and be able to recognize the different signs and symptoms when the blood levels are low.

Red Blood Cells (RBCs) and Hemoglobin

The hemoglobin portion of a red blood cell carries oxygen throughout your body. If your RBC count and hemoglobin are low, you may look pale and feel tired. Normal hemoglobin levels range anywhere from 12 – 14. Normal red blood cell count is between 4-6 cells/mcl. If your hemoglobin level or RBC count drops, the doctor may give you medicine to help your body make the red blood cells it needs. In some cases, you may require a blood transfusion.

Platelets (PLT)

Platelets help stop bleeding by initiating the clotting process in the blood. The normal platelet count is between 150,000 and 350,000. When the platelet count drops below 50,000 you may bleed when you get a cut, bruise more easily, or get nose bleeds. If the platelet count drops below 20,000, you may bleed spontaneously. If your platelet count drops, the doctor may give you medicine to help your body make more platelets. In some cases, you may need a platelet transfusion.

Important Reminders About a Low Platelet Count

Please inform the doctor if you experience any of the following:

  • Bruising easily
  • Small purple red dots on the skin (petechiae)
  • Blood in the urine or vomitus
  • Black stools (look like tar) or bright red bowel movements
  • Bleeding from gums, mouth, nose or rectum

If You Have a Nosebleed: Sit up and lean your head forward. Squeeze your nose tightly. Place an icepack on your nose.

White Blood Cells (WBCs)

White blood cells fight infection. The normal WBC count is between 4,000 – 10,000. The WBC that best fights infection are called neutrophils (Segs). Young neutrophils are called Bands. The absolute neutrophil count is the actual amount of WBCs that are capable of fighting infection (Bands + Segs). When the ANC is less than 1,000, this is referred to as a condition called neutropenia. It becomes harder for the body to fight off infection, when absolute neutrophil count is less than 1,000.

What Happens When You Have Neutropenia?

Because of the low number of WBCs, especially neutrophils, you are at higher risk for infection. Although you cannot prevent infections, here are some tips for minimizing your risk for infection:

  • Avoid coming into contact with people who have colds or a contagious illness.
  • Do not share food utensils.
  • Avoid crowds, especially in the winter.
  • Wash your hands with soap before preparing or eating food and after using the washroom.
  • Don’t provide direct care for pets. Don’t change litter boxes or clean bird cages.
  • Unless told otherwise, drink at least 8oz of fluid 6-8 times each day.
  • Protect your skin from cuts and burns. Wear shoes or slippers to prevent cuts on your feet.
  • Take your temperature daily. Call if your temperature is 101F or greater.
  • If you need dental work, consult with your doctor to make arrangements with your dentist.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet. Wash fruits and vegetables well with warm water.