Dr. Kerry Rogers explains chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) staging and how it can impact a patient’s prognosis, treatment options and overall care.
Dr. Kerry Rogers is a hematologist-oncologist at The James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. More about Dr. Rogers here.
Let’s talk a little bit about how CLL is staged, Dr. Rogers.
So, unlike most cancers, where CLL is staged with CT scans or PET scans, the staging for CLL is actually remarkably simple, and I really like this because it limits the amount of testing you have to do for people, especially the people that might be just monitored for their CLL or observed. You don’t wanna put them through a lot of intensive testing they don’t need. So, the only two things you need to properly stage CLL are a complete blood count and a good physical exam.
So, in the United States, we use something called RAI staging, which is R-A-I staging, and before I launch into what it is, I will just say that even RAI stage 4 CLL is very treatable, and people do well for many years, so this is not the same as when you think about lung cancer or breast cancer staging, where stage 4 is a much worse spot than stage 1. The staging for CLL – all of it is still very treatable.
So, RAI stage 0 is when you only have an increase in lymphocytes, which is the CLL cells in the blood. Stage 1 is when you have increasing lymph nodes in addition to that. Stage 2 is an increased size of the liver or spleen. And then, if someone has anemia from CLL, then it’s stage 3, and stage 4 is if you have low platelets from CLL. So, 3 and 4 are indications that the bone marrow’s not working well due to CLL.
Dr. Rogers, it seems like CLL is a very manageable disease. What are you considering when you’re making a prognosis with a patient?
So, for many people, CLL is a very manageable disease. Like I said, some people have had CLL longer than I’ve been a doctor and have needed no treatment for it. However, there are people with CLL that go on to have a lot of difficulty from it, including not doing well with more than therapy or needing really new, advanced therapies, like something called CAR T-cell therapy.
So, for any individual person, you can never say how it’s gonna turn out for them, but we do use our experience taking care of lots of people with CLL to make an educated guess as to if this person’s gonna be someone that’s gonna expect to need a lot of treatment in their lifetime, or maybe no treatment in their lifetime.
And, the main things we look at in addition to just the staging or are they having symptoms or problems from CLL yet is molecular testing. So, these are genetic tests just on the cancer cells, so they’re not genetic tests that other people in the family get tested for, it’s just changes in the cancer cells, so that can give us a guess as to how long before people need treatment and how well they’ll respond to treatment.
And, I know a lot of people are probably already familiar with this, but there’s a particular chromosome change you can test for called deletion 17p, and that predicts a shorter time to needing treatment, needing more treatments in your lifetime, maybe going on to needing those advanced treatments like CAR T-cell therapy.
It used to be recommended that people with 17p get regular like-donor stem cell transplants, which, in some cases, is still done. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, there’s a chromosome change called deletion 13q, which predicts that in many cases, people don’t need treatment for many years and do very well. So, there’s a panel of chromosome changes that can predict where people are gonna fall on the spectrum.
The other chromosome change that’s become important is something called complex karyotype – and again, this is just in the CLL cells, but the karyotype is the arrangement of the chromosomes and these – the other tests I was talking about are chromosome changes picked up with a test called FISH. This is just looking at all the chromosomes, what they look like, and if there are three unrelated genetic abnormalities are more, it’s something called a complex karyotype, and it predicts people will fall in this category of needing more treatment or having more things to do with their CLL in their lifetime rather than not.
And then, the third thing that is really important is something called – and, this is gonna sound long – but, it’s immunoglobulin heavy chain gene mutational status, and mutations in the immunoglobulin heavy chain gene occur normally as these B cells mature, so people that are mutated have more mature cells that became CLL, and people that are unmutated have less mature cells, and people who are mutated that have more mature cells tend to have fewer problems from CLL in their lifetime, and there’s a few implications for CLL treatment for that category.
So, I kind of take all those things into consideration, and then, the other thing that I think is important to consider is newer molecular testing, but that’s still in development, so I think I’ll just end there for now in what I take into account.
I did want to ask one follow-up. Dr. Rogers, how often do you like to check in with your patients with CLL?
Oh, that’s an excellent question, because I think it really depends on how they’re doing.
So, people that have had a lot of changes in their CLL, like the white counts increasing, healthy blood counts going down, lymph nodes changing – then usually, I see them back more often, so I even see someone maybe six or eight weeks later if they have a lot of changes. And then, generally, people who are having changes in their CLL are taking treatment for CLL; I’ll see them at least every three months.
However, like I said, there are people who have had this CLL for decades with no changes in how their disease is, so those people I’ll see every six months, or even sometimes once a year, especially if it’s been 10 years and nothing has changed with the CLL. Even though I like them and enjoy seeing them, I’m sure they have things they’d like to do rather than coming to see me.