Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Patient Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
General Information About Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia is a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell).
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (also called CLL) is a blood and bone marrow disease that usually gets worse slowly. CLL is one of the most common types of leukemia in adults. It often occurs during or after middle age; it rarely occurs in children.
Anatomy of the bone. The bone is made up of compact bone, spongy bone, and bone marrow. Compact bone makes up the outer layer of the bone. Spongy bone is found mostly at the ends of bones and contains red marrow. Bone marrow is found in the center of most bones and has many blood vessels. There are two types of bone marrow: red and yellow. Red marrow contains blood stem cells that can become red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets. Yellow marrow is made mostly of fat.
Leukemia may affect red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
Normally, the body makes blood stem cells (immature cells) that become mature blood cells over time. A blood stem cell may become a myeloid stem cell or a lymphoid stem cell.
A myeloid stem cell becomes one of three types of mature blood cells:
- Red blood cells that carry oxygen and other substances to all tissues of the body.
- White blood cells that fight infection and disease.
- Platelets that form blood clots to stop bleeding.
A lymphoid stem cell becomes a lymphoblast cell and then one of three types of lymphocytes (white blood cells):
- B lymphocytes that make antibodies to help fight infection.
- T lymphocytes that help B lymphocytes make antibodies to fight infection.
- Natural killer cells that attack cancer cells and viruses.
Blood cell development. A blood stem cell goes through several steps to become a red blood cell, platelet, or white blood cell.
In CLL, too many blood stem cells become abnormal lymphocytes and do not become healthy white blood cells. The abnormal lymphocytes may also be called leukemia cells. The lymphocytes are not able to fight infection very well. Also, as the number of lymphocytes increases in the blood and bone marrow, there is less room for healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. This may cause infection, anemia, and easy bleeding.
This summary is about chronic lymphocytic leukemia. See the following PDQ summaries for more information about leukemia:
- Adult Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Treatment.
- Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Treatment.
- Adult Acute Myeloid Leukemia Treatment.
- Childhood Acute Myeloid Leukemia/Other Myeloid Malignancies Treatment.
- Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia Treatment.
- Hairy Cell Leukemia Treatment.
Older age can affect the risk of developing chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Risk factors for CLL include the following:
- Being middle-aged or older, male, or white.
- A family history of CLL or cancer of the lymph system.
- Having relatives who are Russian Jews or Eastern European Jews.
Signs and symptoms of chronic lymphocytic leukemia include swollen lymph nodes and tiredness.
Usually CLL does not cause any signs or symptoms and is found during a routine blood test. Signs and symptoms may be caused by CLL or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:
- Painless swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck, underarm, stomach, or groin.
- Feeling very tired.
- Pain or fullness below the ribs.
- Fever and infection.
- Weight loss for no known reason.
Tests that examine the blood, bone marrow, and lymph nodes are used to detect (find) and diagnose chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
- Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient's health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
Complete blood count (CBC) with differential: A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the following:
- The number of red blood cells and platelets.
- The number and type of white blood cells.
- The amount of hemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen) in the red blood cells.
- The portion of the blood sample made up of red blood cells.
Complete blood count (CBC). Blood is collected by inserting a needle into a vein and allowing the blood to flow into a tube. The blood sample is sent to the laboratory and the red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets are counted. The CBC is used to test for, diagnose, and monitor many different conditions.
- Immunophenotyping: A laboratory test in which the antigens or markers on the surface of a blood or bone marrow cell are checked to see if they are lymphocytes or myeloid cells. If the cells are malignant lymphocytes (cancer), they are checked to see if they are B lymphocytes or T lymphocytes.
- FISH (fluorescence in situ hybridization): A laboratory technique used to look at genes or chromosomes in cells and tissues. Pieces of DNA that contain a fluorescent dye are made in the laboratory and added to cells or tissues on a glass slide. When these pieces of DNA bind to specific genes or areas of chromosomes on the slide, they light up when viewed under a microscope with a special light.
- Flow cytometry: A laboratory test that measures the number of cells in a sample, the percentage of live cells in a sample, and certain characteristics of cells, such as size, shape, and the presence of tumor markers on the cell surface. The cells are stained with a light-sensitive dye, placed in a fluid, and passed in a stream before a laser or other type of light. The measurements are based on how the light-sensitive dye reacts to the light.
- IgVH gene mutation test: A laboratory test done on a bone marrow or blood sample to check for an IgVH gene mutation. Patients with an IgVH gene mutation have a better prognosis.
Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy: The removal of bone marrow, blood, and a small piece of bone by inserting a hollow needle into the hipbone or breastbone. A pathologist views the bone marrow, blood, and bone under a microscope to look for abnormal cells.
Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy. After a small area of skin is numbed, a bone marrow needle is inserted into the patient's hip bone. Samples of blood, bone, and bone marrow are removed for examination under a microscope.
Certain factors affect treatment options and prognosis (chance of recovery).
Treatment options depend on:
- The stage of the disease.
- Red blood cell, white blood cell, and platelet blood counts.
- Whether there are signs or symptoms, such as fever, chills, or weight loss.
- Whether the liver, spleen, or lymph nodes are larger than normal.
- The response to initial treatment.
- Whether the CLL has recurred (come back).
The prognosis (chance of recovery) depends on:
- Whether there is a change in the DNA and the type of change, if there is one.
- Whether lymphocytes are spread throughout the bone marrow.
- The stage of the disease.
- Whether the CLL gets better with treatment or has recurred (come back).
- Whether the CLL progresses to lymphoma or prolymphocytic leukemia.
- The patient's age and general health.
Stages of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
After chronic lymphocytic leukemia has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out how far the cancer has spread in the blood and bone marrow.
Staging is the process used to find out how far the cancer has spread. It is important to know the stage of the disease in order to plan the best treatment. The following tests may be used in the staging process:
- Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body, such as the lymph nodes.
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, such as the brain and spinal cord. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
- CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
- PET-CT scan: A procedure that combines the pictures from a positron emission tomography (PET) scan and a computed tomography (CT) scan. The PET and CT scans are done at the same time with the same machine. The combined scans give more detailed pictures of areas inside the body than either scan gives by itself. A PET scan is a procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.
- Blood chemistry studies: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs and tissues in the body. An unusual (higher or lower than normal) amount of a substance can be a sign of disease.
- Antiglobulin test: A test in which a sample of blood is looked at under a microscope to find out if there are any antibodies on the surface of red blood cells or platelets. These antibodies may react with and destroy the red blood cells and platelets. This test is also called a Coombs test.
The following stages are used for chronic lymphocytic leukemia:
In stage 0 chronic lymphocytic leukemia, there are too many lymphocytes in the blood, but there are no other signs or symptoms of leukemia. Stage 0 chronic lymphocytic leukemia is indolent (slow-growing).
In stage I chronic lymphocytic leukemia, there are too many lymphocytes in the blood and the lymph nodes are larger than normal.
In stage II chronic lymphocytic leukemia, there are too many lymphocytes in the blood, the liver or spleen is larger than normal, and the lymph nodes may be larger than normal.
In stage III chronic lymphocytic leukemia, there are too many lymphocytes in the blood and there are too few red blood cells. The lymph nodes, liver, or spleen may be larger than normal.
In stage IV chronic lymphocytic leukemia, there are too many lymphocytes in the blood and too few platelets. The lymph nodes, liver, or spleen may be larger than normal and there may be too few red blood cells.
Recurrent or Refractory Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
Recurrent chronic lymphocytic leukemia is cancer that has recurred (come back), usually after a period of time during which the cancer could not be detected. Refractory chronic lymphocytic leukemia is cancer that does not get better with treatment.
Treatment Option Overview
There are different types of treatment for patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Different types of treatment are available for patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Five types of standard treatment are used:
Watchful waiting is closely monitoring a patient's condition without giving any treatment until signs or symptoms appear or change. This is also called observation. During this time, problems caused by the disease, such as infection, are treated.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy:
- External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer.
- Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer.
The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type of cancer being treated. External radiation therapy is used to treat chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, or the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.
See Drugs Approved for Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia for more information.
Splenectomy is surgery to remove the spleen.
Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells. Monoclonal antibody therapy, tyrosine kinase inhibitor therapy, and BCL2 inhibitor therapy are types of targeted therapy used in the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Monoclonal antibody therapy is a cancer treatment that uses antibodies made in the laboratory from a single type of immune system cell. These antibodies can identify substances on cancer cells or normal substances in the body that may help cancer cells grow. The antibodies attach to the substances and kill the cancer cells, block their growth, or keep them from spreading. Monoclonal antibodies are given by infusion. They may be used alone or to carry drugs, toxins, or radioactive material directly to cancer cells.
Tyrosine kinase inhibitor therapy is a cancer treatment that blocks signals needed for tumors to grow.
BCL2 inhibitor therapy is a cancer treatment that blocks a protein called BCL2. BCL2 inhibitor therapy may kill cancer cells and may make them more sensitive to other anticancer drugs.
See Drugs Approved for Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia for more information.
New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Chemotherapy with stem cell transplant
Chemotherapy with stem cell transplant is a method of giving chemotherapy and replacing blood -forming cells destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient or a donor and are frozen and stored. After the chemotherapy is completed, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body's blood cells.
Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses the patient's immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer. This type of cancer treatment is also called biotherapy or biologic therapy.
CAR T-cell therapy is a type of immunotherapy that changes the patient's T cells (a type of immune system cell) so they will attack certain proteins on the surface of cancer cells. T cells are taken from the patient and special receptors are added to their surface in the laboratory. The changed cells are called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells. The CAR T cells are grown in the laboratory and given to the patient by infusion. The CAR T cells multiply in the patient's blood and attack cancer cells. CAR T-cell therapy is being studied in the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
CAR T-cell therapy. A type of treatment in which a patient's T cells (a type of immune cell) are changed in the laboratory so they will bind to cancer cells and kill them. Blood from a vein in the patient's arm flows through a tube to an apheresis machine (not shown), which removes the white blood cells, including the T cells, and sends the rest of the blood back to the patient. Then, the gene for a special receptor called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) is inserted into the T cells in the laboratory. Millions of the CAR T cells are grown in the laboratory and then given to the patient by infusion. The CAR T cells are able to bind to an antigen on the cancer cells and kill them.
Treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia may cause side effects.
For information about side effects caused by treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.
Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.
Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI's clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.
Follow-up tests may be needed.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.
Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
Treatment Options by Stage
For information about the treatments listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.
Stage 0 Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
Treatment of stage 0 chronic lymphocytic leukemia is usually watchful waiting.
Stage I, Stage II, Stage III, and Stage IV Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
Treatment of stage I, stage II, stage III, and stage IV chronic lymphocytic leukemia may include the following:
- Watchful waiting when there are few or no signs or symptoms.
- Targeted therapy with a monoclonal antibody, a tyrosine kinase inhibitor, or a BCL2 inhibitor.
- Chemotherapy with 1 or more drugs, with or without steroids or monoclonal antibody therapy.
- Low-dose external radiation therapy to areas of the body where cancer is found, such as the spleen or lymph nodes.
- A clinical trial of chemotherapy and biologic therapy with stem cell transplant.
- A clinical trial of a new treatment.
Treatment Options for Recurrent or Refractory Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
Treatment of recurrent or refractory chronic lymphocytic leukemia may include one of the treatment options described above or enrollment in a clinical trial of a new treatment. See the Stage I, Stage II, Stage III, and Stage IV Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia section for more information.
To Learn More About Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about chronic lymphocytic leukemia, see the following:
- Leukemia Home Page
- Drugs Approved for Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
- Targeted Cancer Therapies
- Biological Therapies for Cancer
For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:
- About Cancer
- Chemotherapy and You: Support for People With Cancer
- Radiation Therapy and You: Support for People With Cancer
- Coping with Cancer
- Questions to Ask Your Doctor about Cancer
- For Survivors and Caregivers
About This PDQ Summary
Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.
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This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
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Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Updated") is the date of the most recent change.
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Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Clinical trials can be found online at NCI's website. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service (CIS), NCI's contact center, at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
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PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/leukemia/patient/cll-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389485]
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Last Revised: 2019-01-22
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