Chronic lymphocytic leukemia is a white blood cell cancer that primarily affects adults over the age of 50. In general, it is a slowly progressing disease that can eventually become fatal if it is not recognized and treated. There are many different types of chronic lymphocytic leukemia treatment available, and specialists make treatment decisions based on the stage of cancer progression and the age and health of the patient. Most people eventually need to receive a combination of chemotherapy drugs, cancer-targeting medications, and antibiotics. If cancer persists and spreads to other parts of the body, aggressive radiation treatments, surgery, and blood transfusions may be necessary as well.
In the early stages of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, symptoms may not be present at all. A doctor might simply detect the cancer after a routine blood test. When patients are asymptomatic, professionals often discourage chronic lymphocytic leukemia treatment. Instead, patients are instructed to schedule regular checkups so their doctors can monitor changes in their conditions. Since the cancer may go into remission on its own or never cause serious health problems, most experts believe it is better to avoid treatment rather than subject patients to the side effects of cancer drugs.
Patients who begin to experience symptoms of fever, fatigue, and lymph node enlargement are candidates for chronic lymphocytic leukemia treatment. Chemotherapy is the most common initial chronic lymphocytic leukemia treatment, and it is highly effective at suppressing this type of cancer in most patients. Depending on a patient's health and the stage of the cancer, he or she may need to take oral chemotherapy drugs or receive intravenous solutions. Fludarabine, cyclophosphamide, and other common chemotherapy drugs are often given in combination to combat cancer in the lymph nodes and bone marrow.
Specialized medications called monoclonal antibodies are often administered with chemotherapy drugs to trigger cancer cell death. Antibodies such as alemtuzumab and rituximab seek out cancer cells in the blood, attach to surface proteins, and chemically signal them to die. Monoclonal antibodies and chemotherapy drugs are generally very effective at killing cancer cells, but they can also damage healthy white blood cells. Patients need to take antibiotics and immune system-boosting medications as well to reduce the risk of infections and lessen side effects.
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia that persists or spreads despite medical care requires additional treatment. Blood and bone marrow transfusions may be performed to replace cancerous white blood cells and damaged bone marrow stem cells. Radiation therapy may be required if tumors develop in lymph nodes or elsewhere in the body. It is difficult for doctors to predict the outcome of chronic lymphocytic leukemia treatment once the cancer is in its late stages, but aggressive, ongoing therapy provides the best chances for survival.