Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)

What is Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia?

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) is a form of cancer that begins in the bone marrow. Since it affects the white blood cells produced there, it spreads through the rest of the body through the bloodstream. Unlike the other forms of leukemia, CLL is relatively slow to develop and may not cause symptoms for months or even years. This is because the blood cells are less disrupted and can function partially, resulting in fewer symptoms.

What are the Symptoms of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia?

For the first stages of a case of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, symptoms are rare. As the disease progresses and the cancer spreads, symptomswill emerge.

Symptoms include

  • Long-term anemia that is resistant to treatment with supplements
  • Symptoms of a depressed immune system, such as regular infections
  • Fatigue and other flu-like symptoms
  • Trouble eating due to early fullness caused by a swollen spleen
  • Nose bleeds and easy bruising due to blood clotting problems

These symptoms are still very easy to miss, so routine screening is necessary for anyone with a family history or other forms of leukemia.

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Causes

CLL is caused by abnormal production of a type of white blood cell called lymphocytes in the bone marrow. The more abnormal lymphocytes there are, the less room there is available for healthy white and red blood cells and platelets.

It isn’t clear why the abnormal lymphocytes grow in some people and not others, but there are certain risk factors which offer some clues as to the cause of CLL. Firstly, people who are middle-aged or older are more likely to develop CLL, and it is more prevalent in men than in women. It also appears to be more common in white people than in other races, and is particularly prevalent in people with a Russian Jewish or Eastern European Jewish heritage.

People with a family history of CLL or any other type of cancer which affects the lymph system are also at a higher risk of developing CLL themselves. This suggests that there is a hereditary factor to the disease, which might mean that certain genes can make people more susceptible to it.

There are also certain medical conditions which are common in people with CLL, including:

  • Pneumonia
  • Sinusitis
  • Shingles
  • Chronic osteoarthritis
  • Prostatitis

However, it’s possible that these conditions simply occur as a result of a weakened immune system caused when CLL is in its early stages, rather than the conditions causing CLL itself.

How is Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Treated?

Since CLL is a form of cancer, chemotherapy is one of the first treatments used to restore normal function to your bone marrow and white blood cells. Stem cell transplants are one of the latest options, but it’s rarely available outside of medical trials.

The use of targeted antibodies is a less damaging way to fight the cancer at the source, but it can cause serious side effects as well. If the cancer has already spread, secondary treatment like surgery or radiation removes those growths as well.

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Prevention

Unlike many other types of cancer, there is little evidence to suggest that CLL can be avoided. The known risk factors for the condition appear to be mainly related to heritage, so it is, therefore, not possible to avoid these risks and prevent the disease.

With other types of leukemia, there are certain steps to take to reduce the risk of developing the disease. Although these won’t necessarily prevent CLL, they won’t necessarily do any harm and could help to prevent other types of cancers. Firstly, it’s important to avoid high doses of radiation which could be harmful. This is particularly relevant for those who work with radiation; for most people, it’s highly unlikely they will become exposed to harmful levels of radiation.

Secondly, those who smoke should quit as soon as possible. Although there is no evidence to suggest that CLL is more likely in those who smoke, many other types of cancers can be caused by the harmful chemicals in tobacco.

Last Reviewed:
September 18, 2016
Last Updated:
December 06, 2017