Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. Bone marrow is a soft, spongy substance in the bones that produces blood cells. CLL is the result of a genetic mutation in the DNA of cells that produce blood. The exact cause of this genetic mutation is unknown.
If you have CLL, your bone marrow produces too many lymphocytes — a type of white blood cell. These lymphocytes don’t function. And they get in the way of other blood cells being produced.
Symptoms of CLL vary depending on the stage or extent of the disease. You may not have symptoms during the early stage. As the disease progresses, symptoms can include:
- enlarged lymph nodes
- night sweats
- weight loss
- frequent infections
Make an appointment with your doctor if you develop any of the above symptoms. The sooner you receive a diagnosis, the better your outlook is.
A diagnosis of this cancer doesn’t mean a shorter life span. CLL has fewer new cases and annual deaths in the United States compared with other cancers like breast cancer or lung cancer. CLL also has a higher survival rate than many other cancers. The survival rate is 82.6 percent five years after a diagnosis. This means that 82 percent of people with the condition are alive five years after diagnosis.
According to the National Cancer Institute, in 2016 there will be an estimated 18,960 new cases of CLL in the United States. And the disease will cause an estimated 4,660 deaths in 2016.
Some people have a higher risk for developing CLL. The disease is more common in men than women, and it affects those over the age of 60. Caucasians are also more likely to develop this type of cancer than other races.
A family history of CLL or other blood disorders also increases your risk. And exposure to certain chemicals like herbicides and insecticides increases risk.
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia has a high survival rate, but several factors influence your outlook. These factors include the stage of the disease and how well you respond to treatment.
After a diagnosis, the next step is staging the disease. There are three CLL stages:
- early stage
- intermediate stage
- advanced stage
Treatment may not be necessary right away if results from your bone marrow biopsy, imaging tests, and blood tests reveal an early stage. The Mayo Clinic reports there is no proof that treating early stage CLL will extend lives. Many doctors forgo treatment at this stage so people don’t experience side effects and possible complications. During early stages of CLL doctors check the disease, and only begin treatment when it progresses.
If you have intermediate or advanced stage CLL, different treatments can improve your survival rate. Treatments include chemotherapy drugs to kill cancer cells and targeted therapy drugs. You may also be a candidate for a bone marrow stem cell transplant. In this procedure, you’ll receive healthy adult blood stem cells from a donor. This can stimulate the production of healthy blood cells.
Living with cancer causes an array of different emotions. Some days you’ll feel good, and other days, not so good. At times you may feel overwhelmed, angry, afraid, nervous, or hopeful. Even if you're in the early stage of CLL and not receiving treatment, you may fear the disease progressing.
Express your feelings
Don’t keep your feelings bottled up inside. You may keep thoughts to yourself to avoid upsetting family or friends. But expressing how you feel is key to coping with the disease. Talk to a trusted family member or friend for reassurance and support, and allow yourself to grieve. It’s okay to cry. In most cases, you’ll feel better after an emotional release.
If you’re uncomfortable talking with others about your condition, write down your feelings in a journal. Also ask your doctor about cancer support groups. Or you could speak with a counselor who works with people with cancer.
A cancer diagnosis can invoke stress and anxiety. But the more you know and understand about the condition, the easier it’ll be to accept your new reality. The American Cancer Society recommends being your own advocate. Don’t wait for your doctor to educate you on CLL.
Research the condition and stay up-to-date on the latest treatments. Take notes during your doctor appointments. And ask your doctor to clarify information you don’t understand. It is also important to find reliable information when looking online. Ask your doctor for a recommendation of where you can read up about your condition.
Physical activity is another way to cope with a CLL diagnosis. Exercise is important because activity increases your brain’s production of endorphins. These are the “feel good” hormones. Exercise improves your mental outlook. It can also boost your immune system and help you fight the disease. Go for a walk or a bike ride, or take a yoga class or another exercise class.
Take your mind off your disease
It can be difficult to get your mind off cancer. One way to cope is to find enjoyable activities that can help you unwind and relax. Explore a hobby, such as photography, art, dance, or crafts. For relaxation, consider guided imagery meditation. This technique allows you to focus on positive images to help you relax and reduce stress. And when you're having a good day, use your energy to live life to the fullest, which can take your mind off your health.