Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell. With CLL, the bone marrow makes too many of these cells. CLL begins in mature lymphocytes. It may be slow growing for many years with little or no trouble. It may also progress to acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a more aggressive form of leukemia. Some forms of CLL may be more serious.
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CLL can also be associated with the presence of chronic lymphocytic lymphoma. This is a small cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma . The abnormal cells in both cases may come from the same parent cell source. As a result, one of the signs of CLL may be swelling in the lymph nodes.
Cancer occurs when cells in the body become abnormal. They divide without control or order. Leukemia is cancer of the white blood cells and their parent cells. Leukemia cells do not function normally. In this case, they cannot fight infections. This means that the person is more likely to become infected with viruses or bacteria. The cancerous cells also overgrow the bone marrow. This forces other normal components like platelets, out. Platelets are needed to help the blood clot. As a result, people with leukemia may bleed more easily.
The exact cause of CLL is unknown. Changes in chromosomes that occur during life have been associated with CLL. It is also associated with exposure to radiation and to toxic chemicals such as:
- Benzene—common in agriculture, and paint and dye manufacturing
- Agent Orange—an herbicide used in the Vietnam war
CLL is more common in Caucasians, men, and those who are middle age or older. Other factors that may increase your chances of CLL:
- Family history of CLL or cancer of the lymphatic system
- Relatives who are Russian Jews or Eastern European Jews
- Exposure to Agent Orange
CLL may cause:
- Painless swelling in the neck, underarms, stomach, or groin
- Easy bruising or bleeding
- Pain or a feeling of fullness below the ribs
- Unexplained weight loss
- Reduced exercise tolerance
- Bone pain
- Enlargement of liver and spleen
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor may also check for swelling of the liver, spleen, or lymph nodes. The nodes may be in the armpits, groin, or neck.
Tests may include:
- Blood tests
- Bone marrow biopsy
- Lumbar puncture —tests the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord for the presence of cancer
- Bone, blood marrow, lymph node tissue, or cerebrospinal fluid tests
- Cytogenetic analysis—to look for DNA changes in the lymphocytes
- Immunophenotyping—examination of the proteins on cell surfaces and the antibodies produced by the body
Imaging tests can evaluate other bodily structures. These can be done with:
Talk with your doctor about the best plan for you. Treatment options include:
A doctor monitors the progress of the disease. Other treatment is not started until symptoms appear to change and become a problem. During this time, other problems can be treated. Watchful waiting is often used in low-risk CLL. Some people may go for many years before more aggressive treatment is needed.
This therapy is the use of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. For CLL, external radiation therapy is used. The radiation is directed at the tumor from outside the body. This treatment is used to treat the brain and spinal cord when indicated. It is also used to treat lymph node issues.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It may be given by pill, injection, or via a catheter. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body. It kills mostly cancer cells, but also some healthy cells.
A splenectomy is a procedure to remove the spleen. It may be done if the spleen has become enlarged or if other complications develop.
Monoclonal Antibody Therapy
This therapy uses antibodies made in a lab. The antibodies help to identify substances on cancer cells or on normal cells that may help cancer grow. The antibodies attach to these substances. This kills the cancer cells, blocking their growth, or preventing them from spreading.
Chemotherapy with Stem Cell Transplant
Chemotherapy with stem cell transplant as a treatment for CLL is still being tested in clinical trials. In this treatment, chemotherapy is followed by a transplantation of immature blood cells called stem cells. The stem cells replace blood-forming cells destroyed by cancer treatment. Stem cells are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient or donor, and infused into the patient.
Treatment of Side Effects
Effects of CLL and treatment include:
- A reduction in red blood cells that can lead to anemia
- Reduced numbers of platelets that assist in blood clotting—thrombocytopenia
- Decreased numbers of the white blood cells that fight infection
Anemia may lead to fatigue. If severe enough, it can complicate respiratory or cardiac disease. Thrombocytopenia may lead to bleeding and bruising. Decreased numbers of white blood cells increases the risk of infection.
Drugs are available to increase production of normal blood cells. When counts are very low, your doctor may recommend blood transfusions. You may also need to change your daily activities to reduce the chance of fatigue, bleeding, or infection.
American Cancer Society http://www.cancer.org
The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society http://www.leukemia-lymphoma.org
Canadian Cancer Society https://www.cancer.ca
Provincial Health Services Authority http://www.bccancer.bc.ca
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/chronic-lymphocytic-leukemia.html. Accessed January 8, 2018.
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)/small lymphocytic leukemia (SLL). EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114637/Chronic-lymphocytic-leukemia-CLL-Small-lymphocytic-leukemia-SLL . Updated March 7, 2016. Accessed January 8, 2018.
General information about chronic lymphocytic leukemia. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/leukemia/patient/cll-treatment-pdq. Updated October 26, 2017. Accessed January 8, 2018.
05/12/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance https://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114637/Chronic-lymphocytic-leukemia-CLL-Small-lymphocytic-leukemia-SLL : Davis AS, Viera AJ, Lensing S, et al. Leukemia: An overview for primary care. Am Fam Physician. 2014;89(9):731-738.
- Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP
- Review Date: 11/2018
- Update Date: 12/20/2014