Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia

A bone marrow cancer in which there is uncontrolled production of mature white blood cells called lymphocytes

  • Rare under the age of 50; most common between the ages of 60 and 80
  • More common in males
  • Genetics and lifestyle are not significant factors

Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) is the most common type of leukaemia in the UK. It mainly affects people over the age of 50 and is more common in men. The cause is unknown.

In CLL, white blood cells called lymphocytes become cancerous as they mature and multiply uncontrollably in the bone marrow, disrupting the production of normal blood cells. Reduced levels of normal white blood cells leads to increased susceptibility to infection. Although cancerous white blood cells are present in increased numbers, they do not function normally. Fewer red blood cells reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood (see Anaemia) and reduced levels of platelets may cause prolonged bleeding (see Thrombocytopenia). The abnormal cells may spread to other tissues such as the lymph nodes, liver, and spleen.

What are the symptoms?

The severity of the disease depends on the white blood cell level and the degree of enlargement of the liver and spleen. Initially, there may be no symptoms; a diagnosis of CLL is often made from a blood test carried out for some other reason. Symptoms are usually mild, develop gradually, and may include:

  • Painless swellings in the armpits, neck, and groin as a result of enlargement of the lymph nodes.

  • Swelling of the abdomen due to an enlarged liver and spleen.

  • Fever and night sweats.

  • Tiredness, pale skin, and shortness of breath on exertion due to anaemia.

As the disease progresses, easy bruising and prolonged episodes of bleeding may occur. If you have CLL, you may be prone to recurrent infections such as shingles (see Herpes zoster).

What might be done?

Following an examination, your doctor may arrange for blood tests to measure your levels of red cells and normal and abnormal white cells. He or she may also arrange for a bone marrow aspiration and biopsy to obtain tissue samples for microscopic examination.

Treatment of CLL is often not necessary in the early stages, although any infections should be treated promptly. If the disease is advanced, you may need chemotherapy.

Most people with mild CLL survive for more than 10 years after diagnosis. People who are severely affected by this form of leukaemia can expect to survive for up to 5 years after diagnosis.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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