Your treatment options for chronic lymphocytic leukemia depend on several factors, such as the stage of your cancer, whether you're experiencing signs and symptoms, your overall health, and your preferences.
Treatment may not be necessary in early stages
People with early-stage chronic lymphocytic leukemia typically don't receive treatment, though clinical trials are evaluating whether early treatment may be helpful. Studies have shown that early treatment doesn't extend lives for people with early-stage chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Rather than put you through the potential side effects and complications of treatment before you need it, doctors carefully monitor your condition and reserve treatment for when your leukemia progresses. Doctors call this watchful waiting.
Your doctor will plan a checkup schedule for you. You may meet with your doctor and have your blood tested every few months to monitor your condition.
Treatments for intermediate and advanced stages
If your doctor determines your chronic lymphocytic leukemia is progressing or is in the intermediate or advanced stages, your treatment options may include:
- Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that kills cancer cells. Chemotherapy treatments can be administered through a vein or taken in pill form. Depending on your situation, your doctor may use a single chemotherapy drug or you may receive a combination of drugs.
- Targeted drug therapy. Targeted drugs are designed to take advantage of the specific vulnerabilities of your cancer cells. Targeted therapy drugs used in treating chronic lymphocytic leukemia include rituximab (Rituxan), alemtuzumab (Campath) and ofatumumab (Arzerra). Other targeted therapies are being studied in clinical trials.
- Bone marrow stem cell transplant. Bone marrow stem cell transplants use strong chemotherapy drugs to kill the stem cells in your bone marrow that are creating diseased lymphocytes. Then healthy adult blood stem cells from a donor are infused into your blood, where they travel to your bone marrow and begin making healthy blood cells.
A reduced intensity, or "mini," bone marrow stem cell transplant is similar to a standard stem cell transplant, but it uses lower doses of chemotherapy drugs.
Bone marrow stem cells may be a treatment option in certain cases when other treatments haven't worked or for certain cases of very aggressive forms of chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Your doctor will meet with you regularly to monitor any complications you may experience. Supportive care measures may help prevent or relieve any signs or symptoms. Supportive care may include:
- Cancer screening. Your doctor will evaluate your risk of other types of cancer and may recommend screening to look for signs of other cancers. For instance, your doctor may recommend an annual skin examination to look for signs of skin cancer.
- Vaccinations to prevent infections. Your doctor may recommend certain vaccinations to reduce your risk of infections, such as pneumonia and influenza.
- Monitoring for other health problems. Your doctor may recommend regular checkups to monitor your health during and after treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia.