Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. It affects a type of white blood cells called lymphocytes. The cancer causes large numbers of abnormal white cells to form, crowding out normal blood cells.
The cancer starts in the bone marrow. Marrow is the soft, fatty tissue inside the hard, outer part of the bones. The marrow makes blood stem cells, which become the different types of blood cells, including white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.
Normally, lymphocytes help your body fight infection and other diseases. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia happens when the body makes too many abnormal lymphocytes. The abnormal cells crowd out other, normal blood cells needed by the body. They do not die, like normal lymphocytes. Instead, they are long-lived and accumulate. The abnormal lymphocytes cannot fight infections like normal white blood cells. So, it’s easier for you to get infections. In addition, you become anemic because you don’t have enough red blood cells. The number of platelets also decreases. This causes you to have blood clotting problems and to bleed easily.
The cause of the disease is not known. Most people who have CLL are over age 60, and it is more common in men than women. It is also more common in people who have close family members who have had CLL.
CLL most often has no or few symptoms. In some people, the first signs of the disease are:
Healthcare provider usually discover the disease during a routine blood test. The blood test will show an abnormally high white blood cell count. You may have other tests to help diagnose and classify the leukemia, such as a biopsy to look at samples of your bone marrow. For the biopsy, a needle is used to get samples of marrow, usually from the back pelvic bone.
In the early stage of CLL, when you have no signs or symptoms, you will not need treatment. There is no cure for the disease, so treatment focuses on controlling the symptoms. When your lymph nodes, spleen, or liver get bigger or when the disease gets worse and you have symptoms, you need to be treated. Your healthcare provider will want to check you regularly. You may need to see a cancer specialist called an oncologist/hematologist.
When you need treatment, your cancer specialist will prescribe chemotherapy.
The disease may slowly get worse over many years. How long you will live after diagnosis depends on the stage of the disease when it was diagnosed and how fast the cancerous cells are growing. Many people with CLL live normal lives for many years.
For more information, contact the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society at 800-955-4572 or visit their Web site at http://www.leukemia.org.
Because healthcare providers do not know what causes CLL and no risk factors have been found, they do not know how to prevent it.