Let’s Talk About Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, a Form of Cancer

Leukemia, a Form of Cancer

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, also commonly known as CLL, is a type of cancer that progresses slowly. It is the second most common type of leukemia.  In this form of leukemia the bone marrow produces too many white blood cells or lymphocytes, which causes a number of health issues.

Our bodies produce blood stem cells that go through several changes as they develop into mature blood cells. During this maturation process the stem cells become either myeloid stem cells or lymphoid stem cells. Once they have fully developed, the stem cells become one of three types of mature myeloid stem cells, or one of three types of mature lymphoid stem cells.

The three types of mature myeloid stem cells are:

  1. Red blood cells, which have the job of carrying oxygen and nutrients to the tissues.
  2. White blood cells, which fight infection and disease.
  3. Platelets, which form blood clots that stop bleeding.

The three types of mature lymphoid stem cells (white blood cells) are:

  1. B lymphocytes, which produce antibodies that help fight infection.
  2. T lymphocytes, which assist B lymphocytes to produce antibodies
  3. Natural killer cells, which attack viruses and cancer cells.

What effects does CLL have on mature blood cells, and a person’s health?

With CLL too many stem cells become abnormal white blood cells (leukemia cells) instead of becoming healthy white blood cells. This causes a number of health issues:

  • The abnormal blood cells (lymphocytes) do not effectively fight infection.
  • The over abundance of abnormal lymphocytes in the bone marrow causes healthy white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets to be crowded out. This interferes with the body’s production of normal, healthy blood cells.
  • The combination of the above two issues can cause infections, easy bleeding, anemia, other immune disorders and a risk of having other types of cancer.

What are the possible risk factors for CLL?  As indicated below, some of the possible risk factors have not been proven, and more research needs to be done.

  • Family medical history:  people with a family history of leukemia, any form of lymph system cancer have a higher risk.
  • Age: People who are over the age of 50 have a greater risk.
  • Gender and race: CLL is more common in men than in women, and white people are more likely to develop it.
  • Family heritage: People of Russian Jewish descent or Eastern European Jewish descent have a greater risk of having CLL.
  • Exposure to chemicals, herbicides and pesticides could be a factor – this is the subject of ongoing research.
  • Obesity: People who are overweight or obese could be at a higher risk, but this requires more research.

What are the symptoms of CLL?

  • tiredness
  • swollen lymph nodes of the neck, underarm, stomach and groin – usually painless
  • unexplainable weight loss
  • a fullness or pain below the ribs
  • fever
  • night sweats
  • recurring or frequent infections

One very important note: the above possible symptoms can also be caused by various other conditions not related to CLL.  If you have any of the above symptoms, it is best to check with your doctor and have the proper testing done. Diagnosis of CLL is done through blood tests, bone marrow tests, and testing the lymph nodes.  Often, CLL is a surprise diagnosis that is found by a routine blood test because many people do not experience any symptoms with the early stages of CLL.

What possible treatment options are there?

There are several considerations when answering that question.  It depends on what stage the CLL is at (early, intermediate or advanced), what symptoms you have been experiencing, your overall health and your preferences.

For early stage CLL many doctors use a ‘watch and wait’ strategy, where they will monitor your condition carefully over time and prescribe treatment only when it become necessary.  Many physicians feel that there is no real benefit for the patient to go through treatment in the early stages of CLL. Studies have shown that aggressively treating early stage CLL does not extend the patient’s life. Intermediate and advanced CLL can be treated with chemotherapy, targeted drug therapy, or bone marrow transplant. Supportive care is available to reduce or prevent signs and symptoms.

Maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle can help!

By having a nutritionally sound diet and a healthy lifestyle you will be able to keep your body healthy, which will increase your chances of avoiding infections and reduce your risk of having other cancers.

Here are seven top tips:

  1. Eat a well balanced, healthy diet that is free of sugar, processed foods and junk foods.  By eating whole foods and foods high in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals (fruits and vegetables) you will be supporting your body’s immune system and helping your body maintain good energy.  And remember to drink plenty of pure water – it is very important for all our body systems, including the blood and tissues.
  2. Exercise at least 3 times per week.  If you can manage it – getting some exercise every day would be good.
  3. Make sure you are getting the sleep your body needs.  Good quality sleep is required for our body to stay healthy, heal and fight off infections.
  4. Keep germs at bay by washing your hands properly and avoiding situations where people are sick.
  5. Make any lifestyle changes that are necessary – such as quitting smoking, cutting down on consumption of alcohol, and monitoring time spent in the sun to avoid over-exposure.
  6. Take steps to reduce stress. Practice relaxation through meditation or yoga.
  7. Find joy in your life! Stay socially connected. Spend quality time with family and friends.

Because CLL is a form of cancer that progresses very slowly, chances of living with CLL successfully for many years and maintaining a healthy and active life are very good.  Joining a support group with other CLL patients, sharing information, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle are all positive steps towards living successfully with CLL.

Do you need help and support to make changes in your diet and lifestyle to boost your immune system?  Are you wondering which foods can give your body the energy you need?  Contact me – I can help!


Informational Resources:

National Cancer Institute   

CLL Canada 

Canadian Cancer Society 

Mayo Clinic  

Lymphoma Canada


Copyright © 2014 Cathy Ormon – All Rights Reserved