When is it time to treat your chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)? Dr. Catherine Coombs reviews the criteria doctors consider when deciding whether it is time to begin therapy.
Dr. Catherine Coombs is an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology at The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Coombs here.
When is it time to treat? What factors do you look at?
There’s pretty well-established guidelines for when treatment is indicated. The international workshop for CLL has these published guidelines, so it’s something you could Google. Off the top of my head, the main reasons that I do treatment, which are included in these guidelines, are one, if the patient has low blood counts due to the CLL, so that could be anemia or low platelets. Two, if they have bulky lymph nodes. They actually define bulky as 10 centimeters. So, that’s pretty big.
Or, if the lymph nodes are being symptomatic in some way, they’re bothering the patient, they don’t have to be that big. Three, if the patient has bulky spleen enlargement or if it’s causing symptoms. The spleen is next to the stomach. So, say some patients may not be able to eat a full meal, that’s another reason we could do treatment.
Another reason is if the CLL is causing constitutional symptoms. Sometimes these are black and white. One is unintentional weight loss of 10 percent or more of the body weight. The one that’s not always black and white is fatigue. Patients can have fatigue from the CLL, but I’ve found often fatigue can be due to other causes. So, that’s something I consider an important job of mine is to make sure we don’t jump into CLL treatment if say, there’s some other cause for the tiredness, such as, say the thyroid’s off, or there’s a huge amount of stress due to some other factor outside of the CLL.
Then, some other constitutional symptoms are CLL can cause fever or drenching night sweats. Those two it’s important to make sure that there’s not a concurrent infection because infections can also cause those symptoms. The last indication is patients with CLL can develop autoimmune cytopenias. That’s when the immune system attacks some component of the blood cells. Most commonly that’s an autoimmune anemia or autoimmune thrombocytopenia. That’s the term for low platelets.
Usually, we can treat that with steroids or occasionally CD-20 by itself like rituximab to calm down the immune system. However, if those immune-based therapies fail the patient, then we could consider treating the CLL to help fix that problem.