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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.
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 cancer of the blood and bone marrow 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 bone marrow 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:
A lymphoid stem cell becomes a lymphoblast cell and then one of three types of lymphocytes (white blood cells):
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. The abnormal lymphocytes may also be called leukemia cells. These leukemia cells are not able to fight infection very well. Also, as the number of leukemia cells increases in the blood and bone marrow, there is less room for healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. This may lead to infection, anemia, and easy bleeding.
This summary is about chronic lymphocytic leukemia. See the following PDQ summaries for more information about other types of leukemia:
Signs and symptoms of chronic lymphocytic leukemia include swollen lymph nodes and feeling tired.
In the beginning, CLL does not cause any signs or symptoms and may be found during a routine blood test. Later, signs and symptoms may occur. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:
Tests that examine the blood are used to diagnose chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
Certain factors affect treatment options and prognosis (chance of recovery).
Treatment options depend on the following:
The prognosis depends on the following:
After chronic lymphocytic leukemia has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out whether the cancer has spread.
Staging is the process used to find out how far the cancer has spread. In chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), the leukemia cells may spread from the blood and bone marrow to other parts of the body, such as the lymph nodes, liver, and spleen. It is important to know whether the leukemia cells have spread in order to plan the best treatment.
The following tests may be used to find out how far the cancer has spread:
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 or there may be too few red blood cells.
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia is described as asymptomatic, symptomatic or progressive, refractory, or recurrent.
There are different types of treatment for patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Different types of treatment are available for patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). 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.
Six types of 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. Watchful waiting is used to treat asymptomatic and symptomatic or progressive CLL.
Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells. Targeted therapies usually cause less harm to normal cells than chemotherapy or radiation therapy do. Different types of targeted therapy are used to treat CLL:
Alemtuzumab has been studied for the treatment of CLL. Studies showed that alemtuzumab did not help patients live longer.
See Drugs Approved for Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia for more information.
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). Combination chemotherapy is treatment using more than one anticancer drug.
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. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the area of the body with cancer, such as a group of lymph nodes or the spleen. This treatment may be used to reduce pain related to a swollen spleen or lymph nodes.
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 cancer treatment is a type of biologic therapy.
Chemotherapy with bone marrow or peripheral stem cell transplant
Chemotherapy is given to kill cancer cells. Healthy cells, including blood-forming cells, are destroyed by the cancer treatment. A bone marrow or peripheral stem cell transplant are treatments to replace the blood-forming cells. 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 patient completes chemotherapy, 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.
New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
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.
For information about the treatment listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.
The treatment of asymptomatic chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) may include the following:
For information about the treatments listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.
The treatment of symptomatic or progressive chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) may include the following:
All of these treatments may be used for patients being treated for the first time and those who have been treated before. Because these treatments have not been compared in studies, it is not possible to know if one treatment is better than another. The choice of treatment is made based on test results, the patient's age and general health, and the desire to minimize short-term and long-term side effects.
The treatment of recurrent or refractory chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) may include therapies and clinical trials.
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about chronic lymphocytic leukemia, see the following:
For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:
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.
PDQ is a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the federal government's center of biomedical research. The PDQ summaries are based on an independent review of the medical literature. They are not policy statements of the NCI or the NIH.
Purpose of This Summary
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.
Reviewers and Updates
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.
The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board.
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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The best way to cite this PDQ summary is:
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: 2021-09-20
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