Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia


Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a type of hematologic cancer. Hematologic cancers, also called blood cancers, include leukemias, lymphomas and multiple myelomas. CLL is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. It is the most common type of leukemia in adults.

Because CLL cells grow slowly and often cause few or no symptoms, your diagnosis may be particularly unexpected. You may have learned you have CLL after having blood tests ordered for another problem or because of findings on a routine physical examination. Or, your CLL diagnosis may be the result of symptoms you’ve had for some time. Regardless, advances in research are enabling doctors to better understand the disease and how it responds to treatment. As a result, they often approach CLL treatment as they would other types of chronic conditions, which allows many people to live longer and with a better quality of life than ever before. Additionally, researchers are currently building on these successes by conducting clinical trials to test new and combination therapies (see Clinical Trials).

To learn more about CLL and your diagnosis, you’re encouraged to find a doctor with experience treating this type of leukemia. Although extremely skilled, a general medical oncologist may see only a handful of CLL patients each year. A hematologist who specializes in CLL, on the other hand, may see hundreds or more. That extensive experience leads to expertise, and it benefits you to work with a doctor who is an expert in the field. Location may be a factor in your choice of doctor and treatment center. If traveling for treatment is not an option, you may find a specialist who will consult with your local doctor. It’s important to learn as much as you can about the disease and the options available so you can confidently partner with your medical team as you move forward.

About CLL

Leukemia begins in the blood and bone marrow, the soft, spongy center of some bones. It occurs when the bone marrow makes too many white blood cells. These white cells don’t fight infection like healthy white blood cells do, making an individual susceptible to infection.

CLL is a slow-growing form of leukemia that develops from lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that makes up lymphoid tissue, which is found in the lymph nodes, thymus, spleen, tonsils and other parts of the body. They are a part of the immune system and develop from lymphoblasts (immature cells found in bone marrow) into mature, infection-fighting cells.

Lymphatic vessels carry a fluid called lymph, which brings oxygen and other nutrients to the cells and takes away waste products. Lymphatic fluid also contains white blood cells, which help fight infections.

CLL develops when mature lymphocytes change and multiply uncontrollably. They grow at a faster rate than normal lymphocytes, and they do not die when they should, causing them to build up in the blood or bone marrow. This leads to an accumulation of them in the blood, bone marrow, lymph nodes and spleen, which interferes with the normal production of healthy cells, including red blood cells, which carry oxygen; white blood cells, which fight infection; and platelets, which are needed for blood to clot. These disruptions cause common CLL symptoms, such as anemia, infections and easy bruising, bleeding, and lymph node and spleen enlargement.

The buildup of abnormal lymphocytes doesn’t form a tumor, which is what people commonly think of when they hear the word “cancer.” Blood cancers are different. Except for lymphomas, they typically do not grow into tumors. Instead, CLL cancer cells circulate in the bloodstream and can spread through the lymphatic system to other parts of the body.

Along with exploring different options available for treating CLL, including clinical trials, this content offers insights on how to manage this chronic disease. The members of your health care team are also valuable resources. They are working for and supporting you to ensure you never feel alone at any point during treatment. Talk with them about all your questions and concerns. The more you know, the more prepared you will be to make decisions about your overall treatment plan.

Additional Resources


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