Is the COVID Vaccine Effective for CLL Patients? Understanding CLL

Is the COVID Vaccine Effective for CLL Patients? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Is the COVID vaccine effective for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients? Dr. Paul Barr shares insight about mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness in CLL patients – both for those in remission and those in active treatment.

Dr. Paul Barr is Professor of Hematology/Oncology at University of Rochester Medical Center. Learn more about Dr. Barr, here.

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An Expert’s Perspective on CLL Research Advances

Transcript:

Katherine:

I understand that researchers have been looking into whether the COVID vaccination is as effective in people with CLL. What can you tell us about that? The research?

Dr. Barr:

Sure. Everyone knew this was going to be an important question. We’ve known for a long time that riff CLL responses to vaccines in general aren’t as good as some of the normal population. So, there’ve been a whole host of studies over the years where patients didn’t quite respond as well to flu vaccines or pneumonia vaccines. Nonetheless, we typically recommend standard vaccinations, because there’s can be some degree of response. And our testing isn’t always perfect in terms of how well vaccines work.

So, when it typically, is felt to be a relatively safe procedure, is something we typically recommend.

More recently, we looked at studies on the shingles vaccine, and actually that works better than perhaps the flu shot, for example. Because patients probably were previously exposed to that virus earlier in life when they get vaccinated. So, recall response, which is a little bit easier for the immune system.

So, that brings us up to the COVID vaccines, which is obviously critically important ever on everyone’s mind. And the data’s still early. But what we’ve learned so, far is that, like what we might have predicted, our patients, the CLL patients don’t respond as well to the mRNA-based COVID vaccines.

So, in the media we saw, in the larger 20- and 40,000 patients studies that maybe, 95 percent of patients didn’t experience infection. It looks like in the general population, those vaccines work very well. In a cohort of 160, some CLL patients who are vaccinated early on in Israel, it looked like maybe about 40 percent of patients responded.

For the patients who hadn’t previously been treated but had measurable CLL, maybe about half of patients responded adequately in terms of generating antibodies. So, kind of a flip of a coin. For patients who have been treated and were in remission for more than a year, we’ll say the responses were better, maybe 80 percent or so.

For patients who are on active treatment, even our novel treatments, like the BTK inhibitors or venetoclax (Venclexta), the BCL-2 inhibitor, the responses were pretty poor, 18 or so percent.

So, you can see for patients with active disease, their responses are impaired. For those that are in remission, a little better. For those who are on active treatment, the antibody responses aren’t very good. So, I honestly think this is important information, but tell patients, don’t lose hope.

It’s still important to take the precautions. Some degree of wearing masks and social distancing. They will be better protected if their friends and family around them are vaccinated, and they still may respond to some degree. It’s not like the vaccines aren’t working at all. It’s just that the responses aren’t quite as good as the general population. So, again, another long-winded answer, but hopefully that helps patients understand some of the limitations in vaccinations.

But also that generally things are getting safer in that they still can venture out in society, but still have to take some precautions.

What Is a CLL Biomarker?

What Is a CLL Biomarker? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What is a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) biomarker? Dr. Paul Barr provides the definition of a biomarker and explains how they may assist in determining a CLL patient’s prognosis and treatment approach.

Dr. Paul Barr is Professor of Hematology/Oncology at University of Rochester Medical Center. Learn more about Dr. Barr, here.

See More from Engage CLL


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An Expert’s Perspective on CLL Research Advances

Transcript:

Katherine:

Often patients are confused with the term biomarker or biomarker testing. Would you define that for us?

Dr. Barr:

Sure. Biomarkers, I think of them as surrogates to understand the bigger picture. A lot of times what we really want to know when we’re meeting a patient is what’s going to happen in the future? What’s going to happen in five and 10 years from now? Or maybe we want to know as we’re getting closer to treatment, how well is this going to work and how long is it going to work for?

So, we do a lot of research in developing surrogate tests to try to give us an idea of what the future might hold. And so, we have developed a number of molecular genetic tests that we test for, and they give us an estimate of what to expect in terms of the patient’s prognosis.

Or perhaps they help predict for which treatment might work best. So, we often, will look at some molecular aberrations or some genetic tests that tell us about abnormalities just within the CLL cells in the leukemia cell. And they can predict for more slowly or rapidly growing disease. And other tests, might predict for, which drug might serve a patient best in terms of efficacy or how long would it work or for safety.

So, think of that as useful tools to help us give the patients an idea of what to expect over time.

An Expert’s Perspective on CLL Research Advances

An Expert’s Perspective on CLL Research Advances from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

What chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) research advances have emerged recently? Dr. Paul Barr shares how CLL treatments have advanced in recent years and how progress has impacted quality of life for patients.

Dr. Paul Barr is Professor of Hematology/Oncology at University of Rochester Medical Center. Learn more about Dr. Barr, here.

See More from Engage CLL


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CLL Treatment and Research Update: News From ASCO 2021

Transcript:

Katherine:

What are you excited about when it comes to CLL research?

Dr. Barr:

Well, it’s hard not to be excited, honestly. Five years ago, roughly, we were largely using chemotherapy.

And while patients could do very well, not all of them did. And in such a short period of time, everything has been turned on its head. We have better treatments for safer, patients are doing better, they’re living longer. There are more novel treatments being studied now. And we start to wonder if with some of the newer treatments, if maybe we actually can cure this disease. Maybe if the majority of them, they might be able to live a normal lifespan. So, we’re incredibly optimistic.

Those are very general statements, but they really are, they come from just the impressive outcomes that we’ve seen from patients being able to be at home, take their treatment, go into deeper remissions and do better in the long-term.

So, yeah, there’s a lot to be excited about. And that’s why my answer is just kind of general. There’s a lot to focus on, from the different novel agents to MRD-guided therapy, to some of the CAR-T products that are coming out. I really think it’ll continue to change at a pretty rapid pace.

Katherine:

That sounds very promising. When it comes to new developments in research, how can patients discuss this type of information with their doctor to find out if there’s a new approach or a clinical trial that might be right for them?

Dr. Barr:

Well, I honestly think they should feel empowered to simply ask. I know a lot of my patients they will want to know anything new. They can ask us, generally is that, they know that we have these major meetings twice a year. And what’s new with these treatments. Or many of them are on clinical trials and want to know, “Do we have any results yet? What’s been changing?” And sometimes at the end of every visit, we’ll spend five minutes just talking about the new developments or what’s coming down the pike or how practice is changing.

I’m just in the routine of having this conversation with most of the patients on a recurring basis. And honestly, they feel well-served, like we’re keeping them up to date. I think patients enjoy that sort of conversation. So, I wouldn’t feel shy about simply asking.

How Can You Engage in Your CLL Care?

How Can You Engage in Your CLL Care? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients become more engaged in their care? Dr. Paul Barr explains steps that patients can take to activate shared decision-making with their provider for optimal care.

Dr. Paul Barr is Professor of Hematology/Oncology at University of Rochester Medical Center. Learn more about Dr. Barr, here.

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An Expert’s Perspective on CLL Research Advances

Transcript:

Katherine:

We’ve been hearing a lot about shared decision-making lately. In your opinion, how is this concept best put into practice?

Dr. Barr:

So, I honestly think shared decision-making is not just useless term. This is something we actually really use in our clinics, and it’s very important for the care of CLL patients, where we have patients who do very well for a long period of time. And there are a lot of different management decisions and a variety of treatment options that we have to discuss.

So, when we have that luxury, it’s really important to help educate patients on the different options and to better understand what their goals of care are, so they can help us decide what’s best for them. When we’re deciding just, one example is that, when we’re deciding on various treatments, we can use agents that are given orally, taken at home, but patients may be on them for many years.

Alternatively, we have fixed duration regimens, but may involve trips to the infusion center. And a lot of these different treatments all work very well. So, involving the patient in that decision making process, makes the process that much easier for the patient and enables you just to take better care of them over the long run.

Katherine:

What is the role of the patient to making treatment decisions?

Dr. Barr:

Well, I think that the role of the patient is really to be their own advocate. Take all the information and then, help us make decisions together. And to just be very honest about what they want from, not just a simple decision about a treatment, but from their overall care. To really just to be as involved as possible and to make sure all of their concerns are heard, all of their questions are answered.

Katherine:

For those who might have trouble speaking up for themselves, what advice do you have for them?

Dr. Barr:

Oh, I would say, especially for our patients with CLL, often there are many,

many appointments along the way, where there may not be urgent decisions being made and there are opportunities to slowly learn more to ask questions. So, as much as possible, try not to be intimidated by that visit to the cancer center, which obviously can be anxiety provoking, but to develop a relationship with your hematologist, your oncologist, your care team so, that they can take better care of you.

I honestly think it works best when you slowly get to know your team, understand the field, some of the decisions that need to be made and that the team only wants what’s best for you. So, yeah, I honestly think it’s – think of it as a process. It’s not a one-time visit where you have to get everything out and get everything answered. It should be a relationship.

CLL Treatment and Research Update: News from ASCO 2021

CLL Treatment and Research Update: News from ASCO 2021 from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

What’s the latest chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment and research news out of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) 2021 meeting? Dr. Paul Barr shares study results and explains how they could impact CLL care.

Dr. Paul Barr is Professor of Hematology/Oncology at University of Rochester Medical Center. Learn more about Dr. Barr, here.

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An Expert’s Perspective on CLL Research Advances

Transcript:

Katherine:

I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Joining me is Dr. Paul Barr. Dr. Barr, would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Barr:

Sure. Hi, Paul Barr from the University of Rochester. Glad to be here.

Katherine:

Thank you so, much. Cancer researchers came together recently to share findings at the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting, also known as ASCO. Is there news from the meeting that CLL patients should know about?

Dr. Barr:

There is. It seems like at every major meeting, we have a potentially practice-changing dataset that we like to scrutinize and talk about. This ASCO is no exception. I think probably the most impactful abstract was a report.

The first time we’ve seen the results from a study that was called The ELEVATE Relapsed Refractory Study. This was a randomized trial, enrolling previously treated CLL patients who had high-risk disease and randomizing them to two of our very important BTK inhibitor treatments.

Half the patients got acalabrutinib (Calquence), and the other half received ibrutinib (Imbruvica). And both groups were treated until the drug essentially either stopped working, the disease became resistant or was stopped for side effects. So, this was a study we have waited on the results for a long time given that we don’t often see these randomized studies comparing two such active agents. And the results showed us that both drugs work really almost equally as well.

The progression-free survival or the roughly the average amount of time patients are taking the drug was just over three years, 38 months in both arms. So, they really work very well and equally as well. But we did see less side effects with the acalabrutinib. And one of the most important side effects that the study was powered around was, atrial fibrillation or flutter.

There was less AFib or less new AFib in patients that were treated with the acalabrutinib. There was also less minor bleeding, arthralgia, diarrhea. So, a number of, perhaps less severe type side effects, were less common. There was more headache and more cough in the acalabrutinib-treated patients. But I think overall, most of us took from this abstract that both drugs work exceptionally well.

And overall, are very well tolerated treatments although there does look to be lower rates of a number of important side effects with acalabrutinib.

Katherine:

Dr. Barr, is there any other news from the conference that patients should know about?

Dr. Barr:

There is. I’ll give you a couple other additional findings. One was an update of a study, we’ve seen the results before. It’s sort of a partner study to the one I just mentioned. It was called The ELEVATE TN or ELEVATE Treatment Naive Study.

These were previously untreated patients, treated with an old standard, randomized study where the patients received either chlorambucil-based therapy (Leukeran). It was combined with a CD20 antibody obinutuzumab (Gazyva). The second arm was single agent acalabrutinib and the third arm was acalabrutinib plus obinutuzumab. Not surprisingly both of the acalabrutinibs continue to perform very well. The treatments work much better than chlorambucil. But now, we have four-year data. And that’s important for us to really understand what to expect as time goes on.

And I think that the major take-homes are that, acalabrutinib continues to work very well in the first-line setting. There is a hint that acalabrutinib, I’m sorry, that obinutuzumub may prolong the remissions, which is a little bit surprising to us.

But again, small differences in the study weren’t powered to really look at that comparison. And also, the major take home from that dataset is that the safety still looks very good at four years for the patients receiving acalabrutinib. So, I think that continues to shape our practice. And I think the last dataset or abstract to comment on, was one actually we saw at a different meeting at the European Hematology Association meeting, EHA. And this was another randomized study comparing two different BTK inhibitors in relapsed CLL patients.

This one compared ibrutinib and zanubrutinib (Brukinsa). Like acalabrutinib, zanubrutinib is another more specific BTK inhibitor. And when you compare it to ibrutinib and perhaps somewhat similarly to The ELEVATE Relapsed Refractory Study in this zanubrutinib-ibrutinib comparison, so-called ALPINE study, we saw similar efficacy.

Zanubrutinib actually looked like it performed a little better than ibrutinib, but also again here, lower rates of side effects. So, the theme continues for the more specific BTK inhibitors. They seem to work just as well, maybe a little better in some respects, compared to Ibrutinib and somewhat lower rates of side effects. So, when you put it all together, all of the BTK inhibitors work exceptionally well.

We have varying degrees of follow-up and confidence. We have the most follow-up in our ibrutinib treated patients so, we know what to expect for patients six, seven years out after being on ibrutinib.

But we’re now seeing in these earlier studies that lower rates of various toxicities for the newer more specific BTK inhibitors. So, kind of a long-winded answer to your simple question, but hopefully that shows how the new and emerging data continues to shape how we take care of patients.

Which Tests Do You Need Before Deciding on a CLL Treatment Path?

Which Tests Do You Need Before Deciding on a CLL Treatment Path? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Why do you need biomarker testing before deciding on a treatment plan for your CLL? Learn which key tests should occur before treatment begins and how the results may impact your care decisions.

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What CLL Tests Are Essential and How Do Results Impact Treatment and Prognosis?

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What Factors Impact CLL Treatment Options?

 

Transcript:

Why do you need biomarker testing before deciding on a treatment plan for chronic lymphocytic leukemia—also known as CLL?

The results may predict how your CLL will behave and could indicate that one type of treatment may be more effective than another.

Biomarker testing—also referred to as risk stratification, genetic, or molecular testing—identifies specific gene mutations, proteins, chromosomal abnormalities and/or other molecular changes that are unique to YOUR CLL. 

These changes are only in the CLL cells and do not affect all the cells in your body.  These are not genetic changes that you inherit or pass on to your children.

Several tests that may help to guide these decisions, include:

  • The FISH test identifies chromosome abnormalities, including high-risk markers like the 17p deletion.
  • Next is testing for IGHV mutational status, which determines whether IGHV is mutated in a patient. Mutated IGHV indicates lower-risk CLL.
  • Then there is the TP53 mutation status test, which looks for mutations in the TP53 gene.

So why do these tests results matter?

One reason they matter is because patients with certain biomarkers may respond better to one treatment approach over another. 

  • For example, patients who are IGHV mutated have a special benefit from chemoimmunotherapy with FCR and could consider this approach. Patients who are IGHV unmutated should not consider FCR.
  • Additionally, patients with deletion 17p or TP53 mutations should never take chemoimmunotherapy, as it results in only a very short-term benefit.

When are these tests administered?

IGHV status typically doesn’t change over time and only needs testing at diagnosis or before your initial treatment.

FISH and TP53 should be repeated before beginning every treatment regimen, as these results may change over the course of the disease.

How can you make sure you have had essential biomarker testing?

  • First, always speak up and ask questions. Remember, you have a voice in YOUR CLL care. Your doctor is expecting you to ask questions and should be able to answer them.
  • Ask your doctor if you have had or will receive biomarker testing—including FISH, IGHV, and TP53–and how the results may impact your care and treatment plan. Be sure to ask for paper or electronic copies of your important test results.
  • And finally, bring a friend or a loved one to your appointments to help you process information and to take notes.

To learn more about your CLL and access tools for self-advocacy, visit powerfulpatients.org/CLL.

NCCN Guidance on Safety and Effectiveness of COVID-19 Vaccines for Cancer Patients

NCCN Guidance on Safety and Effectiveness of COVID-19 Vaccines for Cancer Patients from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Is the COVID-19 vaccine recommended for people living with cancer? Dr. Erin Roesch shares recommendations from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) for those undergoing cancer treatment, including guidance on mask wearing and advice for family members.

Dr. Erin Roesch is a breast medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Roesch here.


Transcript:

Katherine: 

Many cancer patients have questions about the COVID vaccine. Is it safe? Do we need to continue wearing masks? Here to address these questions is cancer expert, Dr. Erin Roesch. Dr. Roesch, would you introduce yourself?

Dr. Roesch: 

Hello. And thank you for inviting me to participate in this very important conversation. My name is Erin Roesch. I am a breast medical oncologist at Cleveland Clinic.

Katherine: 

Excellent. Thank you so much for joining us today. I’d like to run through a list of concerns that cancer patients have about vaccines in general and the COVID vaccine specifically.

So, let’s start with a basic question. Should people get vaccinated if they have cancer?

Dr. Roesch: 

Yes. All individuals diagnosed with cancer should get the COVID-19 vaccine as recommended by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network or NCCN.

An immunocompromised state makes many people with cancer at higher risk of serious COVID-19 illness. Those who are vaccinated are less likely to become sick with COVID-19. And, also, vaccinated people who do get COVID-19 are much less likely to become seriously ill.

I would also mention that those living in the same household as a person diagnosed with cancer and caregivers or other close contacts should also get vaccinated.

Katherine: 

Another common question is whether people with cancer should wait for any reason to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Roesch: 

Most people with cancer should get the vaccine as soon as they can with a few exceptions according to NCCN.

People in the process of receiving stem cell transplant or cellular therapy should wait at least three months after they finish treatment to get vaccinated.

Those diagnosed with certain forms of leukemia should also wait a few weeks after receiving treatment to allow their immune system to recover so the vaccine can be effective.

It’s not been clearly defined exactly how chemotherapy affects responses to COVID-19 vaccines. But some data suggests that immune responses may not be as robust. However, it is still recommended that those receiving chemotherapy and also immunotherapy and radiation should get vaccinated whenever they can.

Katherine:

I think a lot of people are concerned too about whether one vaccine is better than another. What would you say to them?

Dr. Roesch:

And that is a common question that I often get in my clinic. And I advise my patients to receive or take whatever vaccine they are offered.

We don’t really have any studies or data at this point suggesting one being better than another in cancer patients.

Katherine: 

Some people are wondering if the vaccine can give a person COVID-19. How would you address that?

Dr. Roesch: 

I would say that as none of the currently available vaccines are made with a live virus, the vaccine itself can’t give a person COVID-19. By getting vaccinated, actually, those who are immunocompromised are really helping society to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Immunocompromised people who get COVID-19 may be more likely to infect others due to prolonged shedding of the virus after infection.

Katherine:

What about side effects? Are the vaccine’s side effects worse for people with cancer?

Dr. Roesch:  

No. Side effects do not appear to be worse for those diagnosed with cancer. Results to date suggest that the vaccine’s side effects in people with and without cancer are really no different.

These side effects, as we have seen, may include arm soreness, rash, fatigue, chills, fever, headache, for example.

Katherine: 

And, finally, can cancer patients stop wearing a mask after they’ve been vaccinated?

Dr. Roesch:

Cancer patients should continue to wear a mask post-vaccination. Many people with cancer may have a harder time actually fighting infections and may not respond as well to vaccines. So, people diagnosed with cancer and their close contacts should get vaccinated and then continue to follow precautions, which include wearing masks, social distancing, hand hygiene.

Katherine:

Is there a certain length of time that people need to continue wearing a mask after being vaccinated?

Dr. Roesch:  

At this time, I would recommend patients continue to follow the CDC guidelines that are currently in place. And at this point, I don’t think we have a projected end time for that yet.

Katherine:    

Is there anything else you’d like to share with cancer patients who may be concerned about vaccinations?

Dr. Roesch:    

I would encourage those diagnosed with cancer to not only themselves get vaccinated but to also really voice and stress the importance of vaccination to those that surround them, including, again, members of their household, close contacts, and even beyond their inner circle.

I would also advise people to try and avoid letting the concern of possible side effects related to the shot deter them from getting it. The symptoms of COVID-19 can be much worse and potentially serious for some compared with the relatively minor side effects that we’ve seen with the vaccine itself.

I also would mention I’ve had personal patients that have expressed concern about functioning of their immune system while receiving chemotherapy and how this might affect their response to the vaccine. I do emphasize to them that even though responses might not be as strong as they may be in the absence of active treatment, I feel like the potential benefits of the vaccine still outweigh the risks in my mind.

Katherine:   

Thanks so much for joining us today, Dr. Roesch.

Dr. Roesch:

Thank you for having me.

How to Make Confident and Informed CLL Treatment Decisions

How to Make Confident and Informed CLL Treatment Decisions from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can you engage effectively in your CLL care? Collaborating with your doctor and playing an active role in your care can lead to improved outcomes. This animated video reviews essential steps and important considerations for making informed and confident CLL treatment decisions.

See More from Engage CLL


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What Are the Goals of CLL Treatment?

Transcript:

Elena:

Hi, I’m Elena and this is my husband, Bill.

Elena:

Several years ago, I was diagnosed with CLL, which stands for chronic lymphocytic leukemia. CLL is a blood cancer that starts in the bone marrow. It’s the most common type of adult leukemia.

When I was first diagnosed, I wasn’t treated right away. It was confusing at the time, but my CLL doctor, Dr. Singh, told me that most people with CLL don’t need to be treated immediately.

Here’s Dr. Singh, he can explain it further.

Dr. Singh:

Hi! I’m Dr. Singh, and I’m a hematologist specializing in the care and treatment of people with CLL.

At first, we approached Elena’s CLL with “watch and wait” or active surveillance. Through physical exams, blood work and frequent communication, we monitored how her CLL was progressing over time.

Elena:

I was in watch and wait for about a year—then, I begin to have symptoms that interfered with my daily life. I had drenching night sweats and I felt so exhausted.

Dr. Singh:

Right! An increase in symptoms is often an indicator that it’s time to treat a patient’s CLL. Elena’s fatigue and night sweats are common symptoms. Other symptoms can include enlarged lymph nodes or spleen, fever, unintentional weight loss and frequent infections.

In addition to an increase in symptoms, signs that it might be time to treat can include anemia or low platelet counts.

Elena:

So, once Dr. Singh let me know it was time to treat my CLL, he walked me and Bill through the goals of treatment.

And by that, I mean we discussed balancing my lifestyle with finding an effective treatment for my CLL.

Dr. Singh:

Elena let me know that she’s very social and enjoys riding her bike – we wanted to make sure she could continue doing the activities she loves.

The clinical goals of CLL treatment are to slow, stop or eradicate the cancer. I spoke with Elena and Bill about finding an approach that may get her CLL under control while preserving her quality of life.

Elena also had essential testing, including biomarker testing, which we took into consideration along with her treatment goals. We reviewed each potential approach to make sure we found the best, most personalized treatment option for HER CLL.

We discussed the effectiveness of the treatment option, and the likelihood of a recurrence a. And we reviewed what our next steps would be if the treatment plan needed to be adjusted.

Bill:

And I wanted to make sure Elena was able to continue feeling her best, so I asked about potential side effects for each therapy and how it could impact our lifestyle.

Dr. Singh:

Exactly! We discussed how each treatment option could affect Bill and Elena’s daily life. You and your doctor may also consider:

  • The financial impact of a treatment plan
  • Your age and overall health
  • The stage of your disease at the time of treatment
  • And Biomarker test results

Elena:

In addition to asking questions, Bill took notes during our appointments, since it was often hard for me to absorb everything at once.

Bill:

We also made sure to talk about the appointment on our way home, while the information was fresh on our minds. And we did our part by researching CLL and bringing a list of questions to each appointment.

I found an office visit planner on the Patient Empowerment Network website that helped me organize my health info and questions.

Dr. Singh:

As you can see, Bill and Elena were actively engaged in each care decision. It’s vital that patients feel empowered to speak up. If you can, bring a friend or loved one along to your appointment.

And, if you are able, it’s a good idea to seek a second opinion or a consultation with a CLL specialist to help you feel confident in your care decisions.

Elena:

Dr. Singh made Bill and I feel included in the decision-making process, as if it were a collaboration.

Dr. Singh:

That’s right. This is a partnership. So, what steps can you take to be more engaged in your CLL care?

  • Understand and articulate the goals of your CLL treatment plan.
  • Learn about your options and weigh the pros and cons of each approach.
  • Bring a friend or loved one to your appointments.
  • Ask about essential testing and how it may impact your treatment options.
  • Consider a second opinion or a consult with a CLL specialist.

Bill:

That’s great advice, Dr. Singh. To learn more, visit powerfulpatients.org/CLL to access a library of tools.

Elena:

Thanks for joining us.

CLL Survivor Shares the Importance of Finding a CLL Physician You Trust

CLL Survivor Shares The Importance of Finding a CLL Physician You Trust from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patient William shares the story of his CLL journey, including how it was traumatic for him. Watch as he shares the experience of his diagnosis and treatment and the benefits he’s experienced by advocating for himself.

See More From Best CLL Care No Matter Where You Live


My name is William. I worked as a first responder in Dallas for 34 years before I was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. My primary care doctor noticed my white blood count was high during a routine physical and sent me to see an oncologist. My CLL diagnosis was traumatic in a few ways. Both my father and my uncle passed away after battling multiple myeloma.And my father passed away one month before I was diagnosed.

After my past trauma with my father and my uncle and their cancer diagnosis, I shared news about my diagnosis right away with my entire immediate family. I didn’t want them to experience what I went through with my father and uncle. I switched my first oncologist after noticing my first doctor wasn’t a good fit. I remained in watch and wait until I started having some symptoms and started seeing a CLL specialist via telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I liked my doctor’s approach and started an experimental treatment. By my second treatment, my lymph nodes were almost back to normal. During the pandemic, I’ve done televisits with my doctor every three months to go over my blood tests. Televisits weren’t a big concern for me. I felt like I was getting the same level of care, and they are also a normal part of care for CLL patients.

My first bone marrow test showed that my cancer was in 90 percent of my bone marrow, but now it’s only 0.23 percent. Along with my care, I made a few lifestyle changes to help my body. I took charge of my health by losing 30 to 40 pounds, by working out and walking. I cut meat and sugar out of my diet to prepare my body to fight CLL. I wanted to do everything I could to be around for my family for many more years. A big part of my life is music. I love playing jazz for others to enjoy and hope to be playing for many years into the future as well.

My advice to other CLL patients:

  • Make the decision to fight this.
  • Be open to clinical trials.
  • Get a physician you trust, someone who is very knowledgeable, and someone who you can rely on 100 percent.

These actions are key to staying on your path to empowerment.

Is the COVID-19 Vaccination Safe for CLL Patients in Treatment?

Is the COVID-19 Vaccination Safe for CLL Patients in Treatment? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

Are COVID-19 vaccines safe for chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients in treatment? Dr. Lindsey Roeker discusses COVID-19 vaccine safety, common symptoms, and the effectiveness in CLL patients.

Dr. Lyndsey Roeker is a hematologic oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Roeker here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

We have another question from our audience. Eileen is currently in active treatment for her CLL, and she wants to know, “Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for her?”

Dr. Roeker:                 

Great question. So, here is my take on COVID vaccines. We have great data on the safety of these vaccines, so the risk of a life-threatening allergic reaction is very, very low, less than one in a thousand. We know that it can cause some irritation at the injection site, so pain in your arm. We know that it can cause some kind of flu-like, blah symptoms for a couple of days, totally fine to take ibuprofen and kind of get yourself through that period.

But from a safety perspective, I don’t have concerns about these vaccines. There’s a lot of social media coverage on long-term implications that are either not based on data, at all, and just speculation, and people who are trying to raise alarm, or people who are really bringing up bad things that are happening to people really far out from the vaccine. And I think it’s really hard to attribute that to the vaccine. Obviously, any time there is a new technology, there’s the possibility of things happening, and we’re going to know more with time, but I think, overall, from a scientific perspective, there is no data that makes me worried about the safety of this vaccine.

The efficacy question, I think, is more of an open question, and the reason I say that is two-fold. The first is, we know that patients with CLL who get other vaccines, some get 100 percent coverage, some get zero percent coverage, and some are somewhere in between.

And it’s hard to predict who is going to fall where. So, that’s the first piece. The second piece is, we’ve looked at patients who had CLL and got COVID, and we saw if they made antibodies, which is kind of a marker of an immune response, and it’s not consistent that every patient who got COVID makes antibodies.

So, the combination of those two pieces of data makes me question exactly how well they’re going to work. So, what I’m telling my patients is, “Definitely go ahead and get it. I think it’s safe. And then pretend that you didn’t get it.” So, I know that’s hard advice to hear, but continue wearing a mask, continue social distancing, and continue to wash your hands. And then, every interaction you have is a risk-benefit discussion or decision. So, that’s different for every person, but in general, I recommend that people continue being cautious.

Once the whole population around you is vaccinated and we have less virus circulating in the community, that’s when it’s going to be substantially safer. So, definitely, I recommend that people get it, regardless of whether you are on watch and wait, getting treatment, have just finished treatment, whatever it is, but I do think there’s reason to be cautious even after getting vaccinated.

Katherine:                  

Are there symptoms or issues CLL patients should be looking out for, post-vaccine?

Dr. Roeker:                 

Not particularly, beyond what people are getting in kind of the general population. If you’re having a lot of those kind of flu-like symptoms, just talk to your provider to make sure that ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) is safe, because if your platelets are really low, that can cause bleeding. But acetaminophen (Tylenol) is typically pretty safe and talk to your doctor about which medicines are kind of best for you to take in that situation, but no particular concerns in patients with CLL.

                  

How Can CLL Patients Insist on Better Care?

How Can CLL Patients Insist on Better Care? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

How can chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients insist on better care? Dr. Lindsey Roeker shares key advice for discussing testing and provides important questions to ask your doctor for the best care for you.

Dr. Lyndsey Roeker is a hematologic oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Roeker here.

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Transcript

Katherine:                  

Patients should insist on essential CLL testing. It’s important to point out that some patients may not know if they’ve received these important tests, so how can they take action?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, the next time you’re at your doctor, ask, “I just want to know more about the prognosis of my CLL, and can we talk through the genetic markers of my disease, to help me understand what to expect?” That’s kind of code for, “Let’s go through all of these test results,” and it also – if you have a provider who doesn’t routinely test them at diagnosis, and for instance, just tests before treatment, they can also kind of give you their sense of when they do the testing, so you know what to expect. And I think that’s an important discussion to have with your provider, for sure.

Katherine:                  

Are there key questions that patients should ask their physicians?

Dr. Roeker:                 

I’m always impressed with the questions that people come up with. I think one of the best is, what should I expect, based on what we’re doing now? It’s always a hard question to answer because, obviously, for any patient, it’s so individualized, but I think understanding what to expect, as a general sense, is a good way to approach both treatment and prognosis, and all of those kinds of things.

Why Should CLL Patients Speak Up About Treatment Side Effects?

Why Should CLL Patients Speak Up About Treatment Side Effects? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

How can chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients benefit from speaking up about their treatment side effects? Dr. Lindsey Roeker explains how these important discussions can impact a patient’s quality of life.

Dr. Lyndsey Roeker is a hematologic oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Roeker here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Why is it important for patients to speak up if they’re experiencing side effects? I know that they sometimes feel like they’re bothering their healthcare team.

Dr. Roeker:                 

Thank you for that question, because it’s really important point. Side effects are easiest to manage when you catch them early. So, when people have, for instance, muscle pain or joint aches, I have lots of tricks up my sleeve to help people, but I need to know about it. So, if people don’t tell me until they have joint pain that’s so bad that they’re not able to exercise or not able to get out of bed easily in the morning, that’s taking it – it’s gone on for a while at that point, and it’s pretty far down the line.

First of all, you wouldn’t have had to suffer for that long because we have ways of fixing it, and second, it’s always harder to fix a problem once it’s further down the line than earlier on. So, I talk to people about what side effects they might experience and what to expect, and then we talk about different management strategies to really nip it early so that we’re not dealing with a really huge problem down the line.

How Can I Tell if My CLL Treatment is Effective?

How Can I Tell if My CLL Treatment is Effective? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

How is chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment effectiveness monitored? Dr. Lindsey Roeker discusses the potential symptom improvements that can manifest and what she looks for during examinations with her patients.

Dr. Lyndsey Roeker is a hematologic oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Roeker here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

How do you monitor whether a treatment is working?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, a lot of it has to do with the CBC, so your normal blood count, and what we’re looking for is improvement in hemoglobin and improvement or normalization of platelet count. And for many people, those, either anemia or low platelets, are the symptoms that drive people to be treated in the first place, so we’re looking for those parameters to get better.

With a lot of people with CLL, totally understandably, because it’s the number that’s the most abnormal, really focused on white blood cell count. 100 percent understandable.

I always tell people that that’s actually the part of the CBC that I care least about, and the reason is that, for patients on BTK inhibitors, we expect to see the white blood count actually get higher before it gets less high. That’s actually just a sign that the drug is working and it’s pulling CLL cells from the lymph nodes into the bloodstream. So, that’s actually a good sign that it’s working, and that lymphocyte count, at least in the beginning, isn’t a great marker of how well the drug is working.

The other thing that’s important is the physical exam, so looking for whether any lymph nodes that were enlarged have normalized or gone away, and also feeling the sides of the spleen, because the spleen can become enlarged with CLL, and it’s important to make sure that’s normalizing, as well.

And then the last piece is talking to people, so making sure that if they were having fatigue, or fevers, or night sweats before they started treatment, to make sure that those symptoms have gone away. And that’s kind of the three things that I use. I use the blood counts, the physical exam, and the interview with a patient to really understand how their disease is responding.

What is High-Risk CLL and How Is It Treated?

What is High-Risk CLL and How Is It Treated? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

What exactly is high-risk chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), and how is it treated? Dr. Lyndsey Roeker discusses biomarkers that indicate high-risk CLL as well as treatment approaches that may be used for targeting specific subtypes of CLL.

Dr. Lyndsey Roeker is a hematologic oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Roeker here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

We have an audience question. Mike wants to know, “What does it mean to have high-risk CLL?”

Dr. Roeker:                

So, great question, and the interesting thing is that I think the answer to that question is evolving. So, deletion of 17p, deletion of 11q, and TP53 mutation have historically been markers of more aggressive disease or unfavorable CLL. In the era where we only had chemo and immunotherapy, we know that patients had less great outcomes. We know that the treatments tended to not work as well, and patients had disease that tended to come back faster, and things like that.

That’s all evolving in the era of targeted agents. We have some indication that probably patients who have more aggressive underlying disease biology, meaning disease that’s going to behave less well, kind of regardless of what we treat it with, certainly may derive less benefit, meaning that the treatment will work for less long. That being said, these treatments are still really effective for our patients who have traditionally high-risk disease. So, I think it still remains to be seen, in terms of long-term outcomes and what to expect for patients that have these traditionally high-risk characteristics.

Katherine:                  

Let’s run through a few potential results so we can understand how you might approach each patient type. If someone has deletion 17p, what is the approach?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, there are two totally reasonable frontline treatment options.

So, BTK inhibitors, which are – the current approved ones are ibrutinib and acalabrutinib, are completely a reasonable approach in the frontline setting, meaning the first treatment that someone gets, and those are pills that you take daily. For ibrutinib, it’s once a day. For acalabrutinib, it’s twice a day, for as long as they’re working. And the idea is, with this approach, you keep on those medicines, and they keep the disease suppressed. So, that’s the first option.

The second totally reasonable option is a combination of venetoclax (Venclexta) and obinutuzumab (Gazyva). So, venetoclax is a pill and obinutuzumab is an IV medicine, and the way that this was studied was a total of one year of therapy. So, from the time you start until you’re done with all of your treatments, that’s a one-year course. And the drugs have different side effect profiles, and depending on other medical problems, patient preference about, let’s just take a pill and that’s easy, versus the combination of pill and IV medicines, either can be a completely reasonable choice.

It just depends a lot on patient and doctor preference.

Katherine:                  

What about the TP53 mutation?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, both of those treatment options seem to work very well for TP53-mutated patients. We had that discussion about the possibility of chemoimmunotherapy for a small minority of patients, and for patients with a TP53 mutation, using chemoimmunotherapy up front is probably not the correct answer. It’s better to go with one of the targeted drug approaches.

Katherine:                  

How would you approach each patient type, if a patient is IGHV unmutated?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, IGHV-unmutated is the same discussion. Chemoimmunotherapy is probably not going to provide a durable, meaning it’s not going to last for a long time. We’re not going to achieve that potential cure. So, for those patients, either the BTK inhibitor approach, or the venetoclax/obinutuzumab approach is completely a reasonable one to take.

Katherine:                  

And if they’re IGHV-mutated?

Dr. Roeker:                 

IGHV-mutated patients who are young and don’t have a lot of other medical problems, that’s when we add in the third option of chemoimmunotherapy. For many patients, it’s not wrong to choose either a BTK inhibitor or venetoclax/obinutuzumab, but it does add in that third potential option of chemoimmunotherapy.

Katherine:                  

Are there other markers that patients should know about?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, TP53 mutation status, FISH, and karyotype kind of gets you most of them. Some centers do additional next-generation sequencing of other genes that have been associated with higher-risk disease, though really understanding how to interpret those results still remains somewhat unclear, and that’s still an area of research that people are doing, to really understand what those other mutations really mean for people.

What CLL Tests Are Essential and How Do Results Impact Treatment and Prognosis?

What CLL Tests Are Essential and How Do Results Impact Treatment and Prognosis? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

Which chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) tests are essential for patients? Dr. Lyndsey Roeker shares details about vital tests for CLL and the influence of results on treatment and prognosis.

Dr. Lyndsey Roeker is a hematologic oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Roeker here.

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Transcript:

Katherine:                  

What tests are necessary to help understand a patient-specific disease, both at diagnosis and prior to treatment?

Dr. Roeker:                

So, at diagnosis flow cytometry is the first test done, and what that means is, you take all of your white blood cells in your blood, and you run them through a fancy machine that puts them into buckets. So, you have a bucket of your normal neutrophils, a bucket of your normal lymphocytes, and then you find this bucket of cells that look somewhat unusual. And those have a specific look, if you will, and if they look like CLL cells, that’s how we make the diagnosis.

As you start reading, you’ll find that people talk about monoclonal B-cell lymphocytosis, which is MVL, CLL, and SLL, and a lot of times, it’s confusing because you start reading, and there are all of these – kind of lingo around it. So, what we’re looking for with flow cytometry is how many cells are in the peripheral blood? If it’s fewer than 5,000 per microliter – so, your doctor will talk to you; they’ll either say five or 5,000, depending on what units they’re using.

If it’s lower than that, and you don’t have any lumps or bumps or lymphadenopathy, meaning enlarged lymph nodes, that’s when we make the diagnosis of monoclonal B-cell lymphocytosis.

So, that’s kind of a pre-cancer diagnosis. Then, CLL, the diagnosis, is made in any patient who has greater than 5,000 cells per microliter, or five, if you’re using that unit, and that’s when the diagnosis of CLL is made. If people have lymph nodes that are enlarged, and there are CLL or SLL cells inside of them, but not a lot of involvement in the blood, that’s when we make the diagnosis of SLL, which is small lymphocytic lymphoma. So, CLL and SLL are really the same disease; it’s just where they manifest, primarily. So, whether it’s mostly in the blood, that’s CLL, or mostly in the lymph nodes, and that’s SLL.

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, that’s the flow cytometry test, and that’s kind of the test that leads to the diagnosis.

Katherine:                  

What about FISH and TP53 mutation?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, at diagnosis, I often do this testing. Depending on which provider you go to, you may do it at diagnosis or closer to the time of needing treatment. But FISH is basically a test that looks for big changes in the chromosomes. So, if you remember back to high school biology and you see all of those chromosomes laid out, what FISH is looking for is big changes in those chromosomes. So, is there an entire arm of one of the chromosomes missing? And that’s what FISH does.

There’s also something called karyotyping, or in some institutions, they use something called SNP array. These are more refined tests that look for additional changes in the DNA. So, FISH is kind of a targeted look at a few different chromosomes, whereas karyotype or SNP array looks at all of the chromosomes. Then, there is TP53 mutational testing, and that is done through a bunch of different testing, often next-generation sequencing is what we use.

And we basically use a fancy spellcheck to see if there are any misspellings, if you will, in TP53.

And TP53 is a gene that we use. It’s called the guardian of the genome. So, its job is basically to make sure that our cells are reproducing. They keep all the genes in working order. If TP53 is missing or misspelled, it doesn’t work as well, and that’s when people can get more issues with their CLL. It tends to be CLL that behaves a little more aggressively.

Katherine:                  

What about IGHV mutation status?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, IGHV mutation status is a really important feature because it really is, of all of the things, what helps us understand the best way to go about therapy. And IGHV mutational status is basically a signature of the CLL that helps you understand how mature or immature the CLL cells are.

In general, mature cells tend to behave a little bit more predictively, and in ways that behave a bit better with therapy. So, the more mature cells are actually mutated IGHV, and I know that’s backward, because usually we think of mutated as being back. But in this case, mutated is actually those cells that are a bit more mature, and that just has to do with how white blood cells develop in our body. If it’s IGHV-unmutated, those tend to be the more immature cells that can behave a little more erratically.

Katherine:                  

Which tests need to be repeated over time?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, IGHV mutational status never changes, so that one does not need to be repeated. TP53 mutational status, FISH, and karyotype or SNP array, are ones that I tend to repeat before we start any therapy. So, at the time that you’re going to start your frontline therapy, and then if you have the disease come back and need to be treated again, I usually repeat those tests because those can change over time.

So, that’s both FISH, karyotype or SNP array, and the TP53 mutational testing.

Katherine:                   

So, it sounds like it’s important for patients to make sure they’ve had this testing. What do the test results reveal about a patient’s prognosis?

Dr. Roeker:                 

So, IGHV mutational status, like I said, really helps us understand how to approach therapy. In general, CLL is a disease that we are increasingly managing with targeted medicines, so drugs that really manipulate the cell biology to either stop the growth of cells or kill the cells so that they pop open. And that has been a trend that has taken place over the last six or seven years, and definitely has revolutionized the treatment of CLL. There is still a small minority of patients, the patients who have IGHV-mutated disease, and are younger, and have fewer other medical problems, that can still be good candidates for chemotherapy.

And the reason that I say that is because in general, chemotherapy for those young, mutated patients cures a subset of patients, so when we look at long-term studies of FCR, which is a combination of chemo and immunotherapy, there are a subset of patients who have a really long period where their disease doesn’t come back, to the point that we call them cured or functionally cured. That’s obviously a word that has a lot of emotional charge around it, and it’s hard because there’s always the possibility of the disease coming back in the future.

But because of those long-term outcomes, we know that there are some patients that can really have long-term benefit from chemoimmunotherapy.

For IGHV-unmutated patients, and especially for patients with TP53 mutations or deletion of 17p, chemoimmunotherapy really is not the right answer, with all of the medications that we have available to us now.