CLL stands for Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia. But what does that really mean? First, let’s talk about white blood cells. There are certain white blood cells (lymphocytes) that are part of the main types of immune cells in the body. These cells are made in the bone marrow, as well as in the blood and lymph tissue. There are different types of lymphocytes that have specific roles, however, they all perform special tasks that help defend our bodies against bacteria, fungal or viral infections.
CLL is a chronic (long-term, slowly developing) leukemia that affects lymphocytes, causing them to grow out of control. Normal lymphocytes help the body fight against infection. CLL cells are cells that have grown out of control and unable to fight infection and function as normal lymphocytes do.
CLL starts by changing the DNA of a single lymphocyte, beginning in the bone marrow, and then traveling into the blood and other parts of the body. Unlike some other types of leukemia, CLL cells usually build up slowly. Over time, the abnormal cells can grow and spread to other areas of the body, such as the lymph nodes, liver, and spleen.
For most people, CLL is diagnosed before symptoms occur. Most of the time, CLL is found in routine blood work, tests, or physical exams for other health issues. Once symptoms arise, they can include:
- Frequent and Repeated Infections
- Lymph Node Swelling (that interferes with the normal organ function in the digestive or urinary systems)
- Night Sweats
- Weight Loss (unexplained)
- Abdominal Fullness
The first step to managing the symptoms of CLL is to understand exactly what’s going on in your body. Remember, treatment plans may differ from person to person based on the unique features of your cancer. Talk to your clinician about questions you have – they want you to feel confident in your treatment plan.