What is chronic lymphocytic leukemia?

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL, is a cancer of your bone marrow and blood. It begins in the white blood cells called lymphocytes. They develop in the bone marrow, and then, when mature, go into circulation in your blood. The word “lymphocytic” means that the cancer starts in these white blood cells.

The leukemia is considered "chronic" when the leukemia cells build slowly over time, versus types of acute leukemia that grow rapidly.

Common related conditions
Leukemia Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL) Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML)

Causes of chronic lymphocytic leukemia

The exact cause of CLL is not known. Doctors think it relates to changes in the chromosomes but can’t yet explain why it happens.

Risk factors for chronic lymphocytic leukemia

Only a few risk factors are known:

  • Family history — people who have parents, brothers, sisters or children with CLL are two times as likely to get CLL as the average person.
  • Chemical exposure — being around pesticides for many years may increase the risk of getting CLL.
  • Ethnicity — CLL occurs in more people who live in North America and Europe than in Asia. though Asians living in the U.S. do not have a higher risk.
  • Gender — males are more likely than females to get CLL.

Symptoms of chronic lymphocytic leukemia

One of the problems with diagnosing CLL is that the symptoms can also be symptoms of other diseases. Because of that, doctors often find CLL when they’re checking for other health problems.

The most common symptoms of CLL are:

  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Fever or night sweats
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Feeling full, even when you haven’t eaten very much

If the symptoms aren’t caught early, other conditions can develop, like anemia, infections, bleeding gums or nosebleeds.

Diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia

The best way to test for CLL is through blood tests and bone marrow tests. Your doctor may also test other tissues and cell samples.

Treatments for chronic lymphocytic leukemia

CLL grows slowly, which means that you may not need treatment right away. Your doctor looks at your condition and chooses what treatment is best for you, and when you should begin treatments. This depends on things like how old you are, how healthy you are and the side effects of the treatments.

The most common treatments for CLL are

  • Chemotherapy, which can be injected into a vein or taken by mouth
  • Stem cell transplant, which is used when the cancer needs high doses of chemotherapy The high doses of chemotherapy can harm the bone marrow, so stem cells are transplanted to bring back the healthy marrow.
  • Targeted therapy, in which the medication to kill cancer cells is taken as a pill every day.
  • Radiation therapy, which is usually used if the cancer has spread throughout the body.

Supportive care is also important. Supportive care treats problems related to CLL, like low blood counts and infections. This might mean taking antibiotics or getting shots to prevent illnesses.

Recovery from chronic lymphocytic leukemia

Recovery from CLL is different from most other kinds of cancer. It’s usually not curable, but people are able to live many years with it. It’s common to have to get treatments on and off for several years.

Once you receive a diagnosis of CLL, you must learn to manage your illness. You’ll be at a higher risk for other types of infections, so you’ll need to try to avoid getting sick.

Since CLL can raise your chances of getting other types of cancers, keep a close eye on your health and let your doctor know if you have any new or unusual symptoms.

It’s important that you follow your doctor’s advice carefully and schedule check-ups regularly to make sure your CLL is in check.

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