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Home > Cancers We Treat > Hematologic Cancer > Leukemia > Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia

Definition

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. You may have 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. This is because leukemia involves the cells of the immune system. These cells are needed to resist infection.


White Blood Cells
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CLL can also be associated with the presence of chronic lymphocytic lymphoma. This is a small cell non-Hodgkin’s 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. They cannot do what normal blood cells do. 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.

Causes

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, paint manufacture, and dye manufacture)
  • Agent Orange (an herbicide used in the Vietnam war)

Risk Factors

The following factors increase your chance of developing CLL:

  • Age: Middle age or older
  • Sex: Male
  • Race: White
  • A family history of CLL or cancer of the lymphatic system
  • Having relatives who are Russian Jews or Eastern European Jews
  • Exposure to Agent Orange

Symptoms

Symptoms include:

  • Painless swelling in the neck, underarms, stomach, or groin
  • Tiredness
  • Paleness (a sign of anemia)
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Pain or a feeling of fullness below the ribs
  • Fever
  • Infection
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Reduced exercise tolerance
  • Bone pain
  • Enlargement of liver and spleen

Diagnosis

The doctor may also check for swelling of the liver, spleen, or lymph nodes. The nodes may be in the armpits, groin, or neck. 

  • You may need to have tests of your bodily fluid. This can be done with:
    • Blood tests
    • Bone marrow aspiration
    • Bone marrow biopsy
    • Spinal tap
    • Routine microscopic exam
    • Bone, blood marrow, lymph node tissue, or cerebrospinal fluid tests
    • Cytogenetic analysis
  • You may need to have pictures taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with:
    • Chest x-ray
    • CT scan
    • MRI scan
    • Gallium scan and bone scan
    • Ultrasound

Treatment

Treatment options include:

  • Watchful Waiting
  • Radiation Therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Surgery
  • Monoclonal Antibody Therapy
  • Chemotherapy With Stem Cell Transplant 

Treatment of Side Effects  

Patients will suffer side effects not only from the leukemia, but from therapy:

  • A reduction in red blood cells that can lead to anemia
  • Reduced numbers of platelets that assist in blood clotting—called thrombocytopenia
  • Decreased numbers of the white blood cells that fight infection

Prevention 

There are no guidelines for preventing CLL.

Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.
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