Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia

What is chronic lymphocytic leukemia?

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a cancer of the blood in which too many lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, are produced by the bone marrow and by organs of the lymph system.

Normally, the lymphocytes fight infection by making antibodies that attack harmful elements. But, in CLL, the cells are immature and overabundant. They crowd out other blood cells, and may collect in the blood, bone marrow, and lymph tissue. CLL is a slowly progressing disease.

According to the American Cancer Society, of the 54,270 leukemia cases expected in 2015, CLL will account for 14,620 cases.

What are the symptoms of chronic lymphocytic leukemia?

Early in the disease, there may be no noticeable symptoms. The following are the most common symptoms of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • persistent weakness
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • enlarged spleen
  • enlarged liver
  • anemia

The symptoms of chronic lymphocytic leukemia may resemble other blood disorders or medical problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

How is chronic lymphocytic leukemia diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for chronic lymphocytic leukemia may include the following:

  • additional blood tests and other evaluation procedures
  • bone marrow aspiration and/or biopsy - a procedure that involves taking a small amount of bone marrow fluid (aspiration) and/or solid bone marrow tissue (called a core biopsy), usually from the hip bones, to be examined for the number, size, and maturity of blood cells and/or abnormal cells.
  • spinal tap/lumbar puncture - a special needle is placed into the lower back, into the spinal canal. This is the area around the spinal cord. The pressure in the spinal canal and brain can then be measured. A small amount of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) can be removed and sent for testing to determine if there is an infection or other problems. CSF is the fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord.

Treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia:

Specific treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia will be determined by your physician based on:

  • your age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the disease
  • stage of the disease
  • your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the disease
  • your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • chemotherapy - A new treatment option is the drug bendamustine hydrochloride (Treanda®), which has demonstrated a better outcome than the usual treatment, chlorambucil (Leukeran®). This medication seems to work by interrupting cell division and damaging DNA in tumor cells, leading to cell death. The most common side effects include lowered blood cell counts, fever, nausea, and vomiting.
  • radiation therapy
  • monoclonal antibodies (Rituxan or Campath)
  • treatment for complications, such as infection or anemia
  • leukapheresis - a procedure to remove excess lymphocytes from the body.
  • bone marrow transplantation or peripheral blood stem cell transplantation
  • splenectomy - surgery to remove the spleen.

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