CLL and Anxiety: How Your Healthcare Team Can Help

CLL and Anxiety: How Your Healthcare Team Can Help from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Many people with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) experience fear and anxiety after a diagnosis. Dr. Seema Bhat explains why it’s important for patients to share how they are feeling with their healthcare team.

Seema Bhat, MD is a hematologist at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – The James. Learn more about Dr. Bhat.

See More from Thrive CLL

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What Happens During CLL “Watch and Wait”

What Happens During CLL “Watch and Wait”?

Addressing Anxiety About CLL and COVID

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Transcript:

Katherine:

Many people with CLL will experience fear and anxiety, whether it’s the stress of being in “watch and wait” or worrying about regression. Why do you feel it’s important for patients to share how they’re feeling with their healthcare team? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, one of the important things to know about CLL is that CLL, at this point of time, it’s not a curable disease. It is a lifelong disease. Patients will have to deal with CLL for the rest of their life in some form or other, either on watchful waiting, or on active treatment, or if they’ll complete a treatment, they’ll have this lurking fear of relapse at any time. A large part of what I do is to help my patients understand what it means to live with CLL. And, of course, anxiety is a big part of that living with CLL. 

Although at this time, we’re unable to cure our patients with CLL, I want my patients to understand that it’s very treatable, treatments are very well-tolerated with low toxicity, and patients live a long life. They can have good, productive, and active life. They should ask their care team about resources for social, emotional, and physical support. They should let them know about their concerns, talk about their feelings.  

Katherine:

How can a social worker provide support, and are there other healthcare team members who might be able to help? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, yes, patients are on a rollercoaster – emotional rollercoaster with this diagnosis. With this diagnosis come lots of unknowns. Worries about possible shortened life span, anxiety over treatment, and effects of treatment. So, there’s lots to deal with, and lot of uncertainty, which causes a feeling of hopelessness for these patients. So, psychological support is very important. That’s where the role of social worker comes in. 

We get them involved to help patients deal with the diagnosis, and social workers – they can provide patients with tools to cope with this life-changing event. They use life tools like encouraging positive thinking, mindfulness, being aware of what the patient can control involving faith and family, and also involving self-care. 

That’s where we see the role of the whole team as such. If patients are having more difficulties, we can have other members of a team, like a mental health provider, connect with our patients. Social workers and other members of the team can help our patients get connected to support groups, or even to other patients who have had similar experiences. 

Educational Resources for CLL Patients

Educational Resources for CLL Patients from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients learn more about their disease? Dr. Seema Bhat recommends resources and online communities for CLL patients looking for more information. 

Seema Bhat, MD is a hematologist at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – The James. Learn more about Dr. Bhat.

See More from Thrive CLL

Related Resources:

Expert Advice for CLL Self-Advocacy

Expert Advice for CLL Self-Advocacy

Signs It Is Time to Treat Your CLL

Setting CLL Treatment Goals WITH Your Team

Transcript:

Katherine:

Many CLL community members are interested in learning more about their disease. So, for newly diagnosed patients, what are a few educational resources you recommend to help them learn more about their condition? 

Dr. Bhat:

There are a number of well-established support groups or educational resources for our patients. These include the CLL Society, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Lymphoma Research Foundation, and then we have Patient Empowerment Network, and we have Patient Power. All these resources provide support groups, organize webinars, and have educational material for our patients. 

Katherine:

What about patients who have been living with CLL for many years, or are quite knowledgeable about their disease? Are there more advanced resources for patients to stay up to date on the latest research and treatment? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, for patients who want to search for additional resources, especially looking for clinical trials, going on this website called clinicaltrials.gov, they can first search for CLL-related clinical trials. Also, NCCN, or “National Comprehensive Cancer Network,” has patient resources for each disease, and then they can find information on CLL there, also. I would also like to say that Google is a good resource, as long as you know where it is taking you. 

Katherine:

Exactly. You may not be able to rely on everything you find. 

Dr. Bhat:

Right. 

Emerging CLL Treatment Approaches

Emerging CLL Treatment Approaches from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Are there emerging CLL treatments that are showing promise? Dr. Seema Bhat provides an overview of ongoing research and discusses when CLL patients should consider clinical trials. 

Dr. Seema Bhat is a hematologist at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – The James. Learn more about Dr. Bhat here.

See More from Thrive CLL

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Understanding CLL Treatment Classes

Understanding CLL Treatment Classes

How Are Targeted CLL Treatments Administered

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Educational Resources for CLL Patients

Transcript:

Katherine:  

Dr. Bhat, where do clinical trials fit into treatment? 

Dr. Bhat:  

So, clinical trials play a very important role to advance treatments. Clinical trials for CLL are done to test new treatments, new combinations of treatments, compare different treatments to each other. The goal of these clinical trials is to continue to do better than what we currently have available. This is how treatments improve. Despite all the advancements that we have had in CLL, in the recent years, it continues to be an incurable disease, even today. Our goal as researchers is never to stop until we get to that cure, and clinical trial is that pathway to that cure.

Katherine:

Are there emerging therapies that are showing promise? 

Dr. Bhat:

Yes, of course. There are a number of emerging therapies that are showing promise. So, we all know about ibrutinib and other BTK inhibitors. These work very well, but sometimes the disease can get resistant to these medications, meaning that it stops responding to these treatments. We are excited about this new kind of BTK inhibitor called, “pirtobrutinib,” which has shown great promise in these resistance cases, and we are hopeful that it’ll be approved soon. 

Katherine:

Are there other options that patients have? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, we all hear about what is called, “chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy,” or CAR-T therapy. This is studied under clinical investigation for CLL and looks very promising. The therapy uses the person’s own immune cell called, “T cell” to identify and attack cancer cells. 

T cells are taken from the patient’s blood and sent to a specific lab. There, the cells are modified so that they can better find and attack cancer cells. These modified T cells are then re-injected back into the patient to find and fight that cancer, to eradicate the disease. So, this looks very promising.  

How Are Targeted CLL Treatments Administered?

How Are Targeted CLL Treatments Administered? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) expert Dr. Seema Bhat explains how self-administered oral treatments work for CLL patients and what potential side effects doctors are watching out for. 

Dr. Seema Bhat is a hematologist at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – The James. Learn more about Dr. Bhat here.

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How Does CLL Affect the Immune System

How Does CLL Affect the Immune System?

Managing CLL Symptoms and Treatment Side Effects

Transcript:

Katherine:

How are targeted therapies administered? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, most of the targeted therapies that we have, we are happy to say that these are oral agents. The BTK inhibitors, the three that we have available, are oral agents. Ibrutinib is taken once a day, zanubrutinib and acalabrutinib are twice a day. Venetoclax, similarly, is an oral agent and is taken once a day. Monoclonal antibodies are also considered targeted agents. These are given as infusions in the clinic or in the clinician’s office.  

Katherine:

The oral medications, patients take that at home? They don’t have to go into the hospital?  

Dr. Bhat:

They do not have to go into the hospital. However, venetoclax is associated with a specific side effect called, “tumor lysis syndrome,” where this medication works so well that initially the cells with die off quickly and then things can collect in the blood.  

For example, uric acid can go up, electrolytes can be up, any number can go up. So, we monitor what those initial weeks of starting venetoclax, we monitor patients very closely. We have them come back and forth to the clinic for monitoring, bloodwork, maybe hydration. And sometimes, if we think they’re at a very high risk for this tumor lysis syndrome, we admit them to the hospital.  

After we cross that, those are administered at home. They can take these at home. 

Understanding CLL Treatment Classes

Understanding CLL Treatment Classes from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) expert Dr. Seema Bhat explains the different treatment classes available for CLL patients and how the standard of care has evolved.

Dr. Seema Bhat is a hematologist at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – The James. Learn more about Dr. Bhat here.

See More from Thrive CLL

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Educational Resources for CLL Patients

Emerging CLL Treatment Approaches

Emerging CLL Treatment Approaches

Managing CLL Symptoms and Treatment Side Effects

Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Bhat, when it’s time to start therapy, what types of treatments are available for CLL patients? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, when we think about treatment for cancer, we think about chemotherapy – the conventional chemotherapy that’s associated with side effects like hair loss, nausea, or vomiting. I’m very happy to say that conventional chemotherapy is no longer the standard of care for patients with CLL. Patients who need treatment for CLL are nowadays treated with what are called, “targeted agents.” 

And we have, in general, two different classes of targeted agents that have been approved for treatment for CLL. We have the BTK inhibitors, Bruton’s tyrosine kinase inhibitors, of which we have three. We have ibrutinib, we have acalabrutinib, and we have zanubrutinib. Then we have BCL-2 inhibitors, of which we currently have one approved, of which is called venetoclax. These treatments can be combined with monoclonal antibodies, which are directed towards the antigen called CD20. For example, rituximab or obinutuzumab. 

Typically, venetoclax is combined with monoclonal antibody as a time-limited therapy. BTK inhibitors usually are not combined with monoclonal antibody. 

Katherine:

What about stem cell transplant, does that fit in there? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, stem cell transplant still has a role for treatment of patients with CLL, but it has moved down the line with such highly effective and well-tolerated oral agents available. 

But, for refractory patients – what we call dual-refractory patients, we definitely are, especially in high – patients who have higher risk features, we do refer them to stem cell transplant. 

Katherine:

And what is a dual-refractory patient, exactly? 

Dr. Bhat:

Dual-refractory patients mean patients who have had a BTK inhibitor, be it ibrutinib, acalabrutinib, or zanubrutinib, and the disease has progressed on that. And then we give them venetoclax, which is a BCL-2 inhibitor. So, these are the two classes of targeted agents that we have available. If they have received ibrutinib, acalabrutinib, or zanubrutinib, and after that, a venetoclax, or venetoclax followed by a BTK inhibitor, and the disease has progressed on both. These patients are called dual-refractory, and currently they tend to be very resistant to whatever treatments we have available. And we looked at other modalities of treatment, be it clinical trials or stem cell transplants for that.  

What Happens During CLL “Watch and Wait”?

What Happens During CLL “Watch and Wait”? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Many patients diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) are put on “watch and wait” until it is time to treat their disease. Dr. Seema Bhat explains what it is and why sometimes this is the only approach patients need.

Dr. Seema Bhat is a hematologist at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – The James. Learn more about Dr. Bhat here.

See More from Thrive CLL

Related Resources:

Understanding CLL Treatment Classes

Understanding CLL Treatment Classes

Emerging CLL Treatment Approaches

Emerging CLL Treatment Approaches

Educational Resources for CLL Patients

Educational Resources for CLL Patients

Transcript:

Katherine:

First, CLL patients are often put in “watch and wait” when they’re first diagnosed. What does that mean? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, “watch and wait” means observation. CLL is a slow-growing cancer, generally, and one of the few cancers that’s managed by observation if it’s not causing any problems to the patient. These problems could include symptoms in the form of fatigue, unintentional weight loss, symptomatic enlargement of their lymph nodes or spleen, or we could see changes in their blood work in the form of decreased hemoglobin or decreased platelets. 

If this is not happening, observation is still the standard of care. And data from this comes from a number of clinical trials where patients were treated based on just having the disease without having any of the symptoms or signs I just mentioned. 

All these studies had negative results, meaning that starting treatment at diagnosis did not affect the overall survival of these patients. These patients – these studies were, however, done in chemoimmunotherapy era. Now, we have targeted agents. And also, now we are able to define CLL better, which means that we are able to predict who has higher risk disease. 

So, there’s renewed interest in these – what these are called, early intervention studies. But until we have those results are matured and available, “watch and wait” is still the standard approach. And during “watch and wait,” we see patients at regular intervals, we assess them for symptoms, we look at their bloodwork, and one of the main reasons for seeing these patients at regular intervals is to reinforce what symptoms we want them to pay attention to. So, educating patients at each visit is a very important part of these visits. 

“Watch and wait” may be all that one-third of our patients may need through their lifetime. They may never need any CLL-directed treatment.  

Thriving With CLL | Tips and Support for Navigating Care

Thriving With CLL | Tips and Support for Navigating Care from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are the key elements that help patients thrive with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)? In this webinar, Dr. Seema Bhat discusses CLL treatment and research, explains how the side effects and symptoms of CLL are managed, and shares tools for managing daily life with CLL.

Seema Bhat, MD is a hematologist at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – The James. Learn more about Dr. Bhat.

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Expert Advice for CLL Self-Advocacy

Expert Advice for CLL Self-Advocacy

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Setting CLL Treatment Goals WITH Your Team

Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today’s webinar is part of our Thrive series, and we’re going to discuss tools for navigating life with CLL. Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you.  

Let’s meet our guest today. Joining us is Dr. Seema Bhat. Dr. Bhat, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself? 

Dr. Bhat:

Hi, Katherine. Thank you for having me here on the program. My name is Seema Bhat, and I am an associate professor at Ohio State University with expertise in treating CLL.  

Katherine:

Excellent, thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to join us. 

Dr. Bhat:

You’re welcome. 

Katherine:

Like all of the webinars in our Thrive series, we start with this question. In your experience, what does it mean to thrive with CLL? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, thriving with CLL to me means that we envision our patients with CLL leading normal, functional, and productive lives. You know, when patients hear the word “cancer,” or “leukemia,” it comes as a big shock to them. Cancer is also associated with drastic changing – life-changing experiences. Patients think about their shortened life span, and the difficulties they’ll have to endure in this shortened life span due to the treatments they will be needing for their cancer. But I want to tell my patients that even though they have a leukemia, they have a cancer, they can still focus on their life in general. 

They have – this has been made possible by very effective yet gentle treatments approved for CLL. Patients can have an enjoyable, fulfilling life focusing on their life in general, and thrive. 

Katherine:

Thank you for that, Dr. Bhat. That’s important for patients to know. Let’s move on to treatment and walk through CLL treatment classes and types. Some of our audience members may already know this information, but it’s a good baseline for newly diagnosed patients. First, CLL patients are often put in “watch and wait” when they’re first diagnosed. What does that mean? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, “watch and wait” means observation. CLL is a slow-growing cancer, generally, and one of the few cancers that’s managed by observation if it’s not causing any problems to the patient. These problems could include symptoms in the form of fatigue, unintentional weight loss, symptomatic enlargement of their lymph nodes or spleen, or we could see changes in their blood work in the form of decreased hemoglobin or decreased platelets. 

If this is not happening, observation is still the standard of care. And data from this comes from a number of clinical trials where patients were treated based on just having the disease without having any of the symptoms or signs I just mentioned. 

All these studies had negative results, meaning that starting treatment at diagnosis did not affect the overall survival of these patients. These patients – these studies were, however, done in chemoimmunotherapy era. Now, we have targeted agents. And also, now we are able to define CLL better, which means that we are able to predict who has higher risk disease. 

So, there’s renewed interest in these – what these are called, early intervention studies. But until we have those results are matured and available, “watch and wait” is still the standard approach. And during “watch and wait,” we see patients at regular intervals, we assess them for symptoms, we look at their bloodwork, and one of the main reasons for seeing these patients at regular intervals is to reinforce what symptoms we want them to pay attention to. So, educating patients at each visit is a very important part of these visits. 

“Watch and wait” may be all that 1/3 of our patients may need through their lifetime. They may never need any CLL-directed treatment. 

Katherine:

Dr. Bhat, when it’s time to start therapy, what types of treatments are available for CLL patients? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, when we think about treatment for cancer, we think about chemotherapy – the conventional chemotherapy that’s associated with side effects like hair loss, nausea, or vomiting. I’m very happy to say that conventional chemotherapy is no longer the standard of care for patients with CLL. Patients who need treatment for CLL are nowadays treated with what are called, “targeted agents.” 

And we have, in general, two different classes of targeted agents that have been approved for treatment for CLL. We have the BTK inhibitors, Bruton’s tyrosine kinase inhibitors, of which we have three. We have ibrutinib (Imbruvica), we have acalabrutinib (Calquence), and we have zanubrutinib (BGB-3111). Then we have BCL-2 inhibitors, of which we currently have one approved, of which is called venetoclax (Venclexta). These treatments can be combined with monoclonal antibodies, which are directed towards the antigen called CD20. For example, rituximab (Rituxan) or obinutuzumab (Gazyva). 

Typically, venetoclax is combined with monoclonal antibody as a time-limited therapy. BTK inhibitors usually are not combined with monoclonal antibody. 

Katherine:

What about stem cell transplant, does that fit in there? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, stem cell transplant still has a role for treatment of patients with CLL, but it has moved down the line with such highly effective and well-tolerated oral agents available. 

But, for refractory patients – what we call dual-refractory patients, we definitely are, especially in high – patients who have higher risk features, we do refer them to stem cell transplant. 

Katherine:

And what is a dual-refractory patient, exactly? 

Dr. Bhat:

Dual-refractory patients mean patients who have had a BTK inhibitor, be it ibrutinib, acalabrutinib, or zanubrutinib, and the disease has progressed on that. And then we give them venetoclax, which is a BCL-2 inhibitor. So, these are the two classes of targeted agents that we have available. If they have received ibrutinib, acalabrutinib, or zanubrutinib, and after that, a venetoclax, or venetoclax followed by a BTK inhibitor, and the disease has progressed on both. These patients are called dual-refractory, and currently they tend to be very resistant to whatever treatments we have available. And we looked at other modalities of treatment, be it clinical trials or stem cell transplants for that. 

Katherine:

How are targeted therapies administered? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, most of the targeted therapies that we have, we are happy to say that these are oral agents. The BTK inhibitors, the three that we have available, are oral agents. Ibrutinib is taken once a day, zanubrutinib and acalabrutinib are twice a day. Venetoclax, similarly, is an oral agent and is taken once a day. Monoclonal antibodies are also considered targeted agents. These are given as infusions in the clinic or in the clinician’s office.  

Katherine:

The oral medications, patients take that at home? They don’t have to go into the hospital? 

Dr. Bhat:

They do not have to go into the hospital. However, venetoclax is associated with a specific side effect called, “tumor lysis syndrome,” where this medication works so well that initially the cells with die off quickly and then things can collect in the blood.  

For example, uric acid can go up, electrolytes can be up, any number can go up. So, we monitor what those initial weeks of starting venetoclax, we monitor patients very closely. We have them come back and forth to the clinic for monitoring, bloodwork, maybe hydration. And sometimes, if we think they’re at a very high risk for this tumor lysis syndrome, we admit them to the hospital.  

Dr. Bhat:

After we cross that, those are administered at home. They can take these at home. 

Katherine:

Dr. Bhat, where do clinical trials fit into treatment? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, clinical trials play a very important role to advance treatments. Clinical trials for CLL are done to test new treatments, new combinations of treatments, compare different treatments to each other. The goal of these clinical trials is to continue to do better than what we currently have available. This is how treatments improve. Despite all the advancements that we have had in CLL, in the recent years, it continues to be an incurable disease, even today. Our goal as researchers is never to stop until we get to that cure, and clinical trial is that pathway to that cure.  

Katherine:

Are there emerging therapies that are showing promise?  

Dr. Bhat:

Yes, of course. There are a number of emerging therapies that are showing promise. So, we all know about ibrutinib and other BTK inhibitors. These work very well, but sometimes the disease can get resistant to these medications, meaning that it stops responding to these treatments. We are excited about this new kind of BTK inhibitor called pirtobrutinib which has shown great promise in these resistance cases, and we are hopeful that it’ll be approved soon. 

Katherine:

Are there other options that patients have? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, we all hear about what is called, “chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy,” or CAR-T therapy. This is studied under clinical investigation for CLL and looks very promising. The therapy uses the person’s own immune cell called, “T cell” to identify and attack cancer cells. 

T cells are taken from the patient’s blood and sent to a specific lab. There, the cells are modified so that they can better find and attack cancer cells. These modified T cells are then re-injected back into the patient to find and fight that cancer, to eradicate the disease. So, this looks very promising. 

Katherine:

Many CLL community members are interested in learning more about their disease. So, for newly diagnosed patients, what are a few educational resources you recommend to help them learn more about their condition? 

Dr. Bhat:

There are a number of well-established support groups or educational resources for our patients. These include the CLL Society, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Lymphoma Research Foundation, and then we have Patient Empowerment Network, and we have Patient Power. All these resources provide support groups, organize webinars, and have educational material for our patients. 

Katherine:

What about patients who have been living with CLL for many years, or are quite knowledgeable about their disease? Are there more advanced resources for patients to stay up to date on the latest research and treatment? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, for patients who want to search for additional resources, especially looking for clinical trials, going on this website called clinicaltrials.gov, they can first search for CLL-related clinical trials. Also, NCCN, or “National Comprehensive Cancer Network,” has patient resources for each disease, and then they can find information on CLL there, also. I would also like to say that Google is a good resource, as long as you know where it is taking you. 

Katherine:

Exactly. You may not be able to rely on everything you find. 

Dr. Bhat:

Right.  

Katherine:

Yeah. Many people with CLL will experience fear and anxiety, whether it’s the stress of being in “watch and wait” or worrying about regression. Why do you feel it’s important for patients to share how they’re feeling with their healthcare team? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, one of the important things to know about CLL is that CLL, at this point of time, it’s not a curable disease. It is a lifelong disease. Patients will have to deal with CLL for the rest of their life in some form or other, either on watchful waiting, or on active treatment, or if they’ll complete a treatment, they’ll have this lurking fear of relapse at any time. A large part of what I do is to help my patients understand what it means to live with CLL. And, of course, anxiety is a big part of that living with CLL. 

Although at this time, we’re unable to cure our patients with CLL, I want my patients to understand that it’s very treatable, treatments are very well-tolerated with low toxicity, and patients live a long life. They can have good, productive, and active life. They should ask their care team about resources for social, emotional, and physical support. 

They should let them know about their concerns, talk about their feelings. 

Katherine:

That’s my next question, actually. How can a social worker provide support and are there other healthcare team members who might be able to help? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, yes, patients are on a rollercoaster – emotional rollercoaster with this diagnosis. With this diagnosis come lots of unknowns. Worries about possible shortened life span, anxiety over treatment, and effects of treatment. So, there’s lots to deal with, and lot of uncertainty, which causes a feeling of hopelessness for these patients. So, psychological support is very important. That’s where the role of social worker comes in. 

We get them involved to help patients deal with the diagnosis, and social workers – they can provide patients with tools to cope with this life-changing event. They use life tools like encouraging positive thinking, mindfulness, being aware of what the patient can control involving faith and family, and also involving self-care. 

That’s where we see the role of the whole team as such. If patients are having more difficulties, we can have other members of a team, like a mental health provider, connect with our patients. Social workers and other members of the team can help our patients get connected to support groups, or even to other patients who have had similar experiences. 

Katherine:

What about worry and anxiety related to COVID and compromised immunity? What would you like patients to know? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, COVID has become another source of anxiety, unfortunately, for many of our patients, and rightly so. Our patients with CLL are considered immunocompromised, meaning that their immune systems do not work that well, which makes these patients very susceptible to different kinds of infections, COVID being one of them. And this was actually shown by some of the early COVID-related studies that showed a very high mortality in patients with CLL. 

This has improved now, mostly because now we are better equipped to handle COVID. We have COVID-directed medications available, but the major impact has been made by the vaccines. So, we highly encourage our patients to get vaccinated against COVID and keep up to date with the latest CDC guidelines. Also, we have Evusheld available, which is under emergency use authorization, and our patients with CLL, due to their weaker immune system, are eligible to get this, which adds an extra layer of protection for our patients. 

Also, it’s important to know that our test – if our patients test do test positive for COVID, they should let their team of doctors know immediately, since now we have monoclonal antibodies and pills that can be used to treat symptomatic COVID. 

Katherine:

That’s great information, thank you. Financial concerns can be another source of stress for people with CLL. Obviously, everyone’s situation is different, of course, but what resources are available for patients who need financial support?  

Dr. Bhat:

So, financial barriers can be a real concern for our patients. Targeted therapies are very expensive, and although insurances do cover them, the approved FDA drugs, copays can be very high, and this adds on because our patients with – our treatments with CLL, some of them tend to be indefinite. That means patients have to take those medications on an ongoing basis, and when they face such situations, high copays, we look into financial assistance. We look for funding for copay assistance, and funding can be provided by pharmaceutical companies. We can also apply for grants through The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and other resources to help out our patients with these financial concerns. 

Katherine:

So, does the patient work with the healthcare team to find financial support? 

Dr. Bhat:

Absolutely. We at our institution have what is called, “MAP,” or Medication Assistance Program. 

And when we see that – we run the medications through the insurance, then we see the copay is high, we refer our patients to the MAP program, and then they take over. They find them grants, they find them assistance through be it pharmaceuticals, copay assistance programs. So, invariably, almost all patients who come and see us are helped through that program.  

Katherine:

What about a nurse navigator or patient navigator? What do they do? How can they help? 

Dr. Bhat:

Well, so yes. Nurse navigators and patient navigators are also very important for caring for our patients. So, patients can have, besides our care for our patients which includes caring for their disease, caring for their symptoms, caring for their reduced hemoglobin and reduced platelets, our symptom management, they have psychological needs, they have functional needs, they have needs like family support.  

So, these are all the things that patient navigators can help patients set that up based on their – we have patients who travel from out of state, are from two or three hours away. So, these patient navigators look into what resources they should have available locally. Sometimes, patient navigators help us – some patients cannot do frequent travels back and forth, so we get them connected to local oncologists, also. So, patient navigators look into those appointments, look into those offices, so they provide a lot of help to us manage our patients. So, they provide more of a holistic management, rather than just treatment of CLL. 

Katherine:

Let’s answer a few audience questions that we received in advance of the webinar. This one is from William. Can you please talk about common side effects of CLL – which, of course, we’ve covered already, but both the ones from the disease itself and then ones related to treatment, and what can be done about these? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, disease-related side effects, or we call them disease-related symptoms, include fatigue as a common symptom. Unintentional weight loss can happen. Fevers, chills, or drenching night sweats can happen. We call them, “B symptoms.” Spleen can enlarge, and the enlargement can cause belly pain or feeling of fullness quickly after a meal since spleen is close to our stomach, and as it enlarges, it limits the space stomach can take up in the belly. Lymph nodes can enlarge and can get uncomfortable. So, if any of these symptoms happen, then we have to treat the CLL, and once we start treating the CLL these symptoms should go away. 

As far as treatment-related side effects are concerned, for example, BTK inhibitors are associated with a certain set of side effects. For example, patients can have muscle cramping, muscle pain, joint pain. Patients can have diarrhea. Some of the side effects that we worry about is change in heart rhythm, for example, atrial fibrillation. We talked about that, or increased risk of bleeding.  

Those are some of the side effects we worry about, and if those were to develop, then, of course – for example, a patient has atrial fibrillation, and if it’s symptomatic, we hold the medication. We take care of the atrial fibrillation, usually in collaboration with cardiologists, and once that’s under control, then we have to decide what to do with the treatment. If the atrial fibrillation is under control, we can re-initiate the treatment, or we can go to one of the next-generation BTK inhibitors – the acalabrutinib, the pirtobrutinib, which have less of those side effects. 

Bleeding tends to be a concern, but anything that reduces the risk of bleeding like other medications, aspirin, clopidogrel (Plavix), other blood thinners, we can avoid them, monitor these patients very closely for any of these side effects, so that’s critical. With venetoclax, it’s usually very well-controlled. It’s the initial part of treatment that tends to be a little bit intensive because of the specific side effect called, “tumor lysis syndrome,” which means that the drug works very quickly, and cells die off quickly, they can release stuff in the blood, and things can collect in the blood. 

Uric acid can go up, electrolytes can be up, any number can go up. So, we are aware of this side effect, and we actually pre-emptively have things in place that can prevent this from happening, or if it happens, we manage it right away. For example, venetoclax has a specific dose initiation. For example, it’s called, “dose ramp-up.” We start it at a lower dose, 20 milligrams, for one week. Escalate it to 50 the next week, 100 the third week, 200 fourth week, and 400 the last week, which is the standard dose. They continue on 400 from there onward. 

And even with the slow dose escalation, in the early couple of weeks, we monitor them very closely. Once we initiate a dose, we bring them back to the clinic to recheck their blood work to see if there are any changes. If any changes have happened, we hydrate them, initiate medication for their tumor lysis syndrome. 

If the risk of tumor lysis is very high, then we monitor then admit them to the hospital. Otherwise, long-term side effects of venetoclax, what we have noticed mostly is gastritis, most side effects – mostly diarrhea. But that’s usually well-controlled. We can manage it well with supportive care. 

Katherine:

Here’s another question from Anna. She asks, “What is MRD, and does that mean that the disease is cured?” 

Dr. Bhat:

So, MRD is minimal residual disease, and in CLL is defined as the number of leukemic cells that can be detected in the blood or bone marrow following treatment, meaning how many cancer cells are remaining after treatment? This can be checked by a couple of tests. Most commonly, we use flow cytometry. Undetectable MRD is currently defined as the presence of less than one cell – one CLL cell in 10,000 white cells. 

It’s emerging as an endpoint in a number of clinical trials, and presence of no MRD, also called, “MRD-negative status,” although not considered a cure, predicts better outcomes with longer remission. This is being done in combination treatment, and although it’s part of clinical trials currently, with more data available, we may start using this in clinical practice in the next coming years. 

Katherine:

Sophia wants to know, “Are there any clinical trials regarding Richter’s, or DLBCL, transformation?” 

Dr. Bhat:

So, Richter’s transformation means when CLL, which is a low-grade disease, changes into high-grade lymphoma, and most commonly it’s “diffuse large B-cell lymphoma,” or DLBCL. Currently available treatments for Richter’s transformation are, unfortunately, sub-optimal. So, clinical trials to find better treatments are critical for this division, and there are a number of these currently going on. For example, some trials add targeted agents to the backbone of standard chemotherapy called, “R-CHOP.” 

So, we have one trial where acalabrutinib is being added. There’s another clinical trail where venetoclax is being combined with R-CHOP. One of the problems with Richter’s Transformation is that it tends to be refractory to treatment, and it tends to come back or relapse. So, there are studies ongoing for relapse treatment as well, with combination of targeted agents. And CAR-T therapy, we just talked about that, is also being studied in Richter’s Transformation. So, there’s a lot going on to improve the outcome for this. 

Katherine:

Okay, that’s great. Here’s one from Phil, “How do mutations affect longevity when surviving CLL? What new treatments help with P53 mutation?” 

Dr. Bhat:

So, there are certain prognostic markers for CLL, meaning certain tests that can tell us how a particular patient is expected to do. Some of these tests detect presence or absence of mutations in certain genes. For example, the IGHV gene can be mutated or unmutated. 

In patients with mutated IGHV, they do well, and patients with unmutated IGHV tend to have a more aggressive disease and may require treatment sooner. Similarly, TP53 mutations also tend to require treatment sooner, and more of these mutations do not respond well to conventional chemotherapy. However, targeted therapy has changed the outlook for these mutations, and it works very well for both these mutations. 

Katherine:

Finally, our last question. One audience member would like to know more about how CLL affects the immune system, including wound healing, and how does CLL impact this? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, patients with CLL usually have a weaker immune system. The lymphocyte, which is the white cell, which is affected in CLL, is an important part for an immune system, and due to the presence of disease, these lymphocytes – although there are lots of them in patients with CLL, they tend to be non-functional. 

“Functionally incompetent,” that’s what they’re called. And it leaves the patient’s immune deficient and susceptible to a variety of infections. Also, the lymphocyte is component – the B lymphocyte is one component of immune system. There are other components like T lymphocyte, antibody, MK cell. There’s cross-dock between the B cells and what we call, the “microenvironment,” which is made of the T cells. This cross-dock is deficient in patients with CLL, again making them immune-deficient and susceptible to infection. So, that’s one impact on their immune system. 

Sometimes, there’s something else happening in the immune system where the immune system can go crazy, or wacky, and start attacking the patient’s own blood cells leading to, for example, decrease of hemoglobin or platelets, because these are immune complications. And also, due to a weak immune system, patients with CLL can have delayed wound healing, which also predisposes them to infection. 

So, being aware of these complications is important and using appropriate precautions can be very helpful. Again, because they have a weakened immune system, vaccines are very important. Using all measures to avoid infection, hand washing, staying away from patients, from people who are obviously sick, is very important. Sometimes, patients where we see they’re’ getting frequent infections, we can use what’s called, “IVIG,” intravenous immunoglobulin. These are pre-farmed antibodies which are injected into or infused into the patient at regular intervals before the sixth week, which reduce the chance of these infections. 

Katherine:

Thank you, Dr. Bhat, for all the information. And please continue to send in your questions to question@powerfulpatients.org, and we’ll work to get them answered on future programs. Dr. Bhat, as we close out our conversation, I’d like to get your thoughts on where we stand with CLL progress. Can patients truly thrive with CLL? 

Dr. Bhat:

So, we have made strides in CLL treatment in the past 10 years that really changed the lives of our patients. These treatments work extremely well, and the side effects are gentler than what we used to see with conventional chemotherapy. And it’ll continue to get better with ongoing research, so I will tell our patients to focus on their lives. We know that they have this disease, but we know how to control it well. So, live your life. Enjoy. Be assured that we have all the tools available for you so that you can thrive. 

Katherine:

Yeah. It seems like there’s a lot of hope in the field. Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Bhat. It’s been a pleasure. 

Dr. Bhat:

Thank you so much for having me. 

Katherine:

And thank you to all of our partners. To learn more about CLL and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for joining us today. 

Tips for Managing Your Oral CLL Treatment Schedule

Tips for Managing Your Oral CLL Treatment Schedule from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Patients taking an oral CLL therapy have a responsibility in managing their own care. Dr. Jean Koff, a CLL expert from Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, discusses the importance of staying on schedule with medications and shares advice for being consistent.

Dr. Jean Koff is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hematology and Oncology at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. Learn more about Dr. Koff, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

With oral medications available to treat CLL, patients now have the role of self-administering with their treatment program. How does this work exactly?  

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, just as you would receive a prescription from one of your doctors to manage your high blood pressure with a bottle of pills, you would also receive a special prescription from the doctor who is managing your CLL, a prescription for one of these oral agents. Either the BTK inhibitors or a venetoclax. And you would be – you would have the instructions on the pill bottle, just as you would you know another prescription, and you would take the medication by mouth, every day, as instructed.  

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. What happens if a patient forgets to take their medication? Does it impact efficacy? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, forgetting a dose for one day, or having to skip a dose for another reason, or even a few days, shouldn’t have a major impact on controlling the CLL. And that’s true for two reasons. One, you’re going to start taking your medication again, you know fairly soon after you miss that dose. The next day or – or in a few days. But also, the – what we call the half-lives of these drugs are relatively long, and so you have some activity of the drug in your system in its ability to control the CLL, even though you haven’t taken the dose that you missed that day. In fact, sometimes we have to hold CLL medications.  

Maybe you’re getting a procedure, some sort of surgical procedure, and you might be at an increased risk of bleeding just in the day or two before and after that surgical procedure, so we would actually recommend that you hold a BTK inhibitor, if that was what you were receiving for your CLL, and then resume it once your risk of bleed had gone down a few days after the surgery.   

We do recommend that if you are going to miss a dose of your medication that you let your clinical team know, just so they can instruct you on how to resume your dose if you haven’t already gotten instructions from them about that. 

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. That’s really helpful information. What strategies are there to keep on schedule and remember to take the medication on time and regularly?  

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, I think these strategies are good whether you have CLL or some other type of disorder that you’re taking medication for. My patients often use labeled pill boxes with days of the week and a.m. and p.m., so that you know whether you took your pill that day and what time of day you took it. And so, setting that out for the week can be very helpful in organizing and making sure that you can check back and remind yourself whether or not you took your pill. 

Katherine Banwell:

How are patients monitored during treatment?  

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, your doctor is going to monitor you more closely when you first start a medication. So, I typically monitor my patients within one or two weeks of them starting an oral drug. One to make sure that they’re feeling okay on it, that they’re not having any side effects when they first start, but also to check lab values and make sure that the – the oral medication isn’t causing any problems with their blood counts or with other labs. Then, once we’ve established that they’re doing well on the medication, maybe they’ve come in every couple weeks for a month or six weeks, we start to space out those visits.  

I usually see my patients who are on active therapy about every three to six months to check and see whether they’re feeling okay, whether they’re having any side effects from the medicines, like I said to check their labs, make sure the medications aren’t causing any lab abnormalities. And also in the longer term, to make sure that their CLL is under good control on – on the medications. Because that’s one of our main goals is to keep the CLL under good control.  

Can a CLL Patient’s Response to the COVID Vaccine Be Boosted?

Can a CLL Patient’s Response to the COVID Vaccine Be Boosted? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Is there a way to boost COVID vaccine response in patients with CLL? Dr. Jean Koff explains ongoing progress being made to protect CLL patients from COVID.

Dr. Jean Koff is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hematology and Oncology at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. Learn more about Dr. Koff, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

We received another patient question prior to the program. Has there been any progress in helping CLL patients get a better reaction from COVID vaccines? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

That is a great question, and that is one that is near and dear to my heart and my colleagues at – at Emory. You raise a really good point, which is that CLL patients have altered immune systems just by virtue of their CLL. The CLL cells exert their influence on other immune cells and can cause your immune system not to respond to infections or immunizations the way it normally would. That’s without any medication in the mix. Now, when we look at patients who are on medications like the ones we’ve been talking about, the BTK inhibitors, venetoclax (Venclexta), but especially the monoclonal antibodies that react against CD20, we see that those patients really do not have an optimal response to vaccines, especially the COVID vaccine. 

Meaning, that patients who receive the COVID vaccine while they’re on that therapy, or even within 12 months of receiving a monoclonal antibody, often don’t mount the same strong immune response as somebody who’s not on those therapies. So, luckily, we – we don’t have to just depend on the vaccines. I still recommend that my patients get vaccinated, because it is safe and it might impart a little bit of efficacy, and it’s certainly more effective than not getting the vaccine. But we also have other approaches to increasing your protection against COVID, including the – the injection called tixagevimab co-packaged with cilgavimab (Evusheld), which can help protect patients specifically whose immune systems are not completely normal and are not expected to mount a strong response to COVID vaccines.  

So, that is definitely a discussion to have with your doctor about how your medications impact your protection from COVID, from vaccines, and whether there are other medications that might be used to help increase your protection.   

Katherine Banwell:

That’s great advice.  

What is YOUR Role in Choosing a CLL Treatment Approach?

What Is YOUR Role in Choosing a CLL Treatment Approach? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Jean Koff shares her perspective on the role of patient when deciding on a CLL treatment approach and reviews key factors that should be considered.

Dr. Jean Koff is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hematology and Oncology at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. Learn more about Dr. Koff, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

What is the patient’s role in deciding on a treatment plan? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, it’s very important that the patient be involved in deciding on a treatment plan. Especially in first-line. Because we have these two excellent classes of agents, the BTK inhibitors and the venetoclax- containing regimens. Both of them have been shown to have very good what we call efficacy CLL, meaning that they’re able to control the disease, patient’s symptoms largely at bay for long periods of time. You know, we’re talking an average of years that – that patients are on these therapies. And they each, like I said have different side effect profiles.  

And they’re given in slightly different ways. And so, right now we don’t have data from our clinical trials comparing a BTK inhibitor regimen to a venetoclax-containing regimen in CLL patients to tell us one is better than the other. And so, for that reason, a lot of the decision-making about which therapy is going to be better for you, or which therapy you would prefer, lies with the CLL patient rather than with the doctor. And the things that I ask my patients to consider, there are a couple different things. One is the side effect profile. So, patients may be more or less comfortable with certain  

side effects of one drug compared to another. Or there may be something in the patient’s medical history that puts them more at risk for a certain side effect than another. 

The other major player in this decision-making process is how these drugs are given. So, with ibrutinib (Imbruvica), the ibrutinib is given as a pill that you take once a day, and you take it indefinitely. Meaning you take that pill once a day for as long as it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, which is keeping your CLL under control, and as long as the patient is tolerating it well, meaning you’re not having a lot of uncomfortable side effects from the ibrutinib. So, I have patients who have been on ibrutinib for years and years and years and years.  

The venetoclax-containing regimen for patients who are getting their first-line treatment in CLL is different. It is designed as a – what we call time-limited therapy. And so, this regimen is given in – over about 12 months, 12 or 13 months, and then stopped, as long as the patient has had a good response. The other thing to consider with the venetoclax r egimen, it’s not just the pill. You do take a pill every day, but you also get a – an infusion for about six months of the monoclonal antibody. Meaning that you’ll have to come into the infusion center and get an infu – an IV infusion of this drug called obinutuzumab. The last consideration with the venetoclax regimen that differs in how it’s administered, is the venetoclax often works so well that it can break down the CLL cells a little bit too quickly. And so, for patients who have a very, very high white count, or large lymph nodes due to their CLL, there is a risk of something we call tumor lysis syndrome, which refers to the process where the tumor cells break down very, very quickly, and they produce molecules that are released into the bloodstream that can be dangerous if they get too high or too low. And so, sometimes, in some patients we have to monitor for the tumor lysis syndrome by checking labs fairly frequently after we start the venetoclax. And for some patients that means they have to stay overnight for a night or two in the hospital for lab monitoring.  

So, for some of my patients that I talk to about venetoclax, they say I want to stay out of the hospital, I just want to take a pill, I’m fine taking a pill, I’ll go with the BTK inhibitors. For other patients, they say I don’t want to be on a pill every single day, I will go through this year of therapy, I’m comfortable with that, and I’m happy that I’ll be able to take a break from therapy after one year. So, that ends up being a large factor in many of the conversations I have with my patients about which therapeutic approach we’re going to use in front-line therapy.  

What Do You Need to Know About CLL Treatment Side Effects?

What Do You Need to Know About CLL Treatment Side Effects? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

CLL Expert Dr. Jean Koff discusses common side effects of CLL treatment and explains how they can be managed.

Dr. Jean Koff is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hematology and Oncology at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. Learn more about Dr. Koff, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

What are the common side effects of treatments, and how are they managed? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, each of the different classes of agents has a different profile of side effects. The BTK inhibitors, the first class that I mentioned with ibrutinib (Imbruvica) and acalabrutinib (Calquence), are usually very well tolerated. The most common side effects that we tend to see are things that the patients can feel or see, but also things that we can see on the labs when we’re monitoring patients. So, sometimes you can see a lower platelet counts or lower blood cell counts with ibrutinib. That’s something that you may not notice, but your doctor’s going to notice on the – the blood counts when you come to the office. Sometimes ibrutinib can cause a rash or GI upset, this is usually easily managed with supportive care from your physician.  

And then some more – some more common effects of the BTK inhibitors include joint pain and headache. And again, many physicians, because we’ve been using BTK inhibitors for a long time, have a good regimen for treating these side effects. More uncommon side effects of BTK inhibitors, particularly ibrutinib that we look out for would be abnormal heart rhythms and some tendency for bleeding. But these are relatively uncommon and with newer BTK inhibitors, we’re seeing lower rates of these side effects.  

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, in terms of venetoclax side effects we have a little bit of a different profile. This agent is much more likely to cause lower cell counts, especially in a white blood cell count known as neutrophil count, and so your doctor will be monitoring you for that. In terms of patient side effects that you can feel, it can cause a rash, it can cause some GI upset. These are usually relatively easily managed but we want you as the patient if you’re on venetoclax to talk to your doctor about these side effects so that they can help you feel better and help you manage those. In terms of the anti-CV20 monoclonal antibodies, which we use a couple in CLL more frequently, they have very similar side effect profiles.  

So, one is rituximab, and one is obinutuzumab. Obinutuzumab is usually used in combination with venetoclax in front-line CLL.  

Like I mentioned before, this is an infusion and most of the side effects that we think about and most commonly see in these anti-CV20s are side effects that patients have during the infusion. And these are referred to as infusion reaction. And these are relatively common, around 30 percent in these anti-CV20 monoclonal antibodies. So, what is an infusion center react – er sorry, what does an infusion reaction look like? This looks sort of like an allergic reaction. 

Katherine Banwell:

Hm. 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, your nurses in the infusion center are going to be monitoring you very carefully once you start the infusion, and they’re going to start it at a low dose, very slowly. But the side effects they’re monitoring for, they’re looking for changes in your heart rate or blood pressure. You may start to feel hot or cold or sweaty, you may have chills. Sometimes patients can have swelling in their throat or their tongue. And what will happen is because these are fairly common, is we’re still able to give the anti-CV20, but what we do is the nurse will stop the infusion, they may give you some medications that calm down that infusion reaction. So, medications like antihistamines –  

Katherine Banwell:

Mm-hmm.  

Dr. Jean Koff:

Or steroids that help tamp down that immune response, and then they start the anti-CV20 infusion at a lower rate. The vast majority of patients will be able to receive an anti-CV20 antibody even if they have an infusion reaction. They may just need a little bit more of those immune tamping-down medications like antihistamines and steroids. And then the last thing to consider, which I think we’ve mentioned, especially in the venetoclax-containing regimens, is the tumor lysis syndrome. And so, that is a side effect like we mentioned is kind of like the venetoclax working really, really, really well, of the tumor breaking down too quickly.  

And so, patients who have tumor lysis, if they’re at high-risk, hopefully they’re already being monitored very closely with frequent lab draws, and they may receive medications that – that diminish the risk of adverse events happening because your electrolytes are out balance, for instance, your potassium is too high, or your calcium is too low. Because your doctors are monitoring you closely, they can give you medications that can help balance  out those – those electrolytes and help protect the kidneys. The tumor lysis is typically not a risk after the initial doses of venetoclax.  

So, the first couple weeks is when we typically monitor that, and then once the CLL has been broken down, or as I like to say, once it’s been cooled off a little bit, then you no longer have this risk of tumor lysis and it – it doesn’t require further monitoring. 

Katherine Banwell:

That’s great information, thank you.  

What Are the Current CLL Treatment Options?

What Are the Current CLL Treatment Options? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

When is it time to treat CLL, and what are the current options? Dr. Jean Koff, from the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, reviews available CLL treatment approaches and discusses patient-specific factors that she considers when choosing therapy.

Dr. Jean Koff is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hematology and Oncology at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. Learn more about Dr. Koff, here.

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Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

Many patients are overwhelmed by the different types and classes of treatment. When is it time to treat CLL, and what are the options? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, I boil down the criteria to when you need to treat your CLL to two main categories. One category is that the disease is progressing quickly, and the other category is the disease is causing problems of some kind, or getting ready to cause problems of some kind. Those are some of the broad categories that we think about when it’s time to start treatment for CLL. Now, this – the groups that research CLL have put out various criteria that help guide physicians about when it’s time to start treatment, and some of those more specific criteria include items like symptoms. So, symptoms are a very important part of that decision-making process.   

And the same symptoms that we mentioned, the B symptoms, fevers, chills, night sweats, weight loss that’s unintentional, or lymph nodes that you can feel, those would potentially be reasons that your doctor would want to start you on CLL therapy. But the CLL can cause issues even in a patient who’s not necessarily having symptoms. So, one of the most common ways that CLL can cause issues is the CLL cells can cause your other blood cells, the normal blood cells, to be low in number. There are several ways the CLL cells can do this. One of the most common ways is that the CLL cells, which are often circulating through your bloodstream, can also collect or overrun your bone marrow.  

And if you think about it, the bone marrow is the factory that makes all of your blood cells. So, when there are too many CLL cells in the bone marrow, they can crowd out the normal blood cells, like red blood cells or platelets. So, when red blood cells or platelets get low beneath certain thresholds, that’s a reason to start CLL therapy. 

Katherine Banwell:

Mm-hmm.   

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, there are a couple other criteria that we think about. CLL cells can collect in other areas, including the spleen. So – and if you remember, the spleen is a lymphoid organ that sits on the left side of your body that is right below the stomach. And so, if CLL cells collect in the spleen, they can cause it to be too big, it can press on the stomach, it can make it so you feel full, even if you haven’t eaten a full meal, that’s something we call early satiety. It can be uncomfortable, causing some abdominal pain. And if the spleen gets really, really big, it can cause it to not be able to do its normal job, which is to filter out the normal blood cells like it does every day. And so, that would be a reason to start therapy as well. And then the last – the last category I would think about is in CLL we have lots of – of CLL cells that are circulating in the blood that we can check with a routine blood count. And the absolute number of CLL cells is not as important as how fast that number is growing. So, your physician will track how fast that number of CLL cells is doubling.  

And if you meet criteria for what we call rapid doubling time, which is usually thought of as less than 12 months but certainly less than six months. So, if your count goes from 30,000 to 60,000 in under six months, then it may be time for you to start thinking about therapy. 

Katherine Banwell:

Right. So, Dr. Koff, would you briefly review the treatment classes? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, for first-line treatment, we have two main treatment classes that we think about at this time. The first is – is called BTK inhibitors, which is Bruton tyrosine kinase inhibitors. And these are oral medications, so medications that you take by mouth, and the most well-studied of these is called ibrutinib (Imbruvica), we typically prescribe ibrutinib by itself. There are other BTK inhibitors we are also now using in this space, one of them is called acalabrutinib  (Calquence), and that is often given with an IV monoclonal antibody called obinutuzumab (Gazyva).   

The other main class of drugs that we consider for first-line treatment of CLL is the BCL-2 inhibitors. Right now there’s only one BCL-2 inhibitor that’s approved for CLL and front-line and it’s called venetoclax (Venclexta). Usually, this drug is also given in the front-line with an anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody. So, the venetoclax itself is a pill you take. And the monoclonal antibody is an – either an IV or a subcutaneous injection.  

Katherine Banwell:

Where do clinical trials fit into CLL treatment? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, clinical trials are part of the reason, a big part of the reason that we’ve been able to make so much progress in how we treat CLL over the past few years. Clinical trials are how we figure out what treatments work for CLL, how patients feel on them, what sort of adverse events or side effects they have on individual treatments, and which treatments do better for keeping CLL symptoms under control, keeping the disease under control, and allowing patients to live longer and have a higher quality of life with their disease.   

Katherine Banwell:

Are there any other options available for CLL patients?  

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, there are other options. A clinical trial, if that is available to you as a patient is nearly always a good thing to consider if you have CLL. Because the vast majority of patients will not be cured by CL – by their treatment for CLL. Meaning that the – even though the treatments we have usually work for a very long time in most patients, ultimately the CLL will at some point, perhaps years down the road, progress and need another therapy. For that reason, we know we can do better. And we are hoping that the next  clinical trial is going to lead to the discovery of a new agent or a new combination – new  combinations of agents that will allow patients to live longer with a better quality of life with CLL.  

Katherine Banwell:

Mm-hmm. 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, that’s always a good option to consider.  

How Are CLL Symptoms Treated?

How Are CLL Symptoms Treated? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Jean Koff reviews common CLL symptoms and explains why patients should discuss any issues they experience with their healthcare teams.

Dr. Jean Koff is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hematology and Oncology at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. Learn more about Dr. Koff, here.

See More from Thrive CLL

Related Resources:

What Are the Current CLL Treatment Options?

What Do You Need to Know About CLL Treatment Side Effects?

What Do You Need to Know About CLL Treatment Side Effects?

What is YOUR Role in Choosing a CLL Treatment Approach?

Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

One part of thriving with CLL is managing the symptoms of the disease. What are the common symptoms of CLL? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, one thing that I see with nearly all of my CLL patients, regardless of where they are in the CLL journey, and regardless of whether they need active medications to manage their CLL, is some degree of fatigue. And this can range from just mild fatigue that patients notice that they need a little bit of a breather in the middle of the day, to needing more sleep at night, to not being able to exercise as much as they’re used to. And that is by far one of the most common symptoms we see. Again, whether or not their disease needs medication to manage it.  

The classic symptoms of CLL that often let us know that it’s time to start medical management are not just this fatigue. But the classic symptoms are  B symptoms. And we describe those as fevers, night sweats, and unintentional weight loss. Those are very common. And then some patients with CLL will also have what we call palpable lymphadenopathy, which is our term for lymph nodes that are enlarged that you can feel. And the most common places to feel these on the body are on the neck, under the arms, and in the groin.  

Katherine Banwell:

Okay. How are symptoms treated? 

Dr. Jean Koff:

So, if your symptoms progress to the point that your doctor thinks you need medication – they’re becoming disruptive to your life, or they are getting worse and worse over time, then there are a variety of medications that we can use in CLL. And this is actually a very exciting field. Right now, the state of the field is that most patients who are starting on their first treatment for CLL will use some sort of oral medication, and that may be accompanied by an IV – what we call monoclonal antibody, or it may not. But one thing that has really changed even since I very first started practicing, is that we no longer commonly use what I would call conventional chemotherapy to treat CLL – even though this was the standard of care just a few years ago. 

Katherine Banwell:

Wow. So, a lot has changed. 

Dr. Jean Koff:

Yes, definitely. 

A Patient’s Perspective | Participating in a Clinical Trial

A Patient’s Perspective | Participating in a Clinical Trial from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Colorectal cancer survivor Cindi Terwoord recounts her clinical trial experience and explains why she believes patients should consider trial participation.

Dr. Pauline Funchain is a medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Funchain serves as Director of the Melanoma Oncology Program, co-Director of the Comprehensive Melanoma Program, and is also Director of the Genomics Program at the Taussig Cancer Institute of the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Funchain, here.

Cindi Terwoord is a colorectal cancer survivor and patient advocate. Learn more about Cindi, here.

See More from Clinical Trials 101

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A Patient Shares Her Clinical Trial Experience

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Are Clinical Trials a Logistical Nightmare?


Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:    

Cindi, you were diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer, and decided to participate in a clinic trial. Can you tell us about what it was like when you were diagnosed?

Cindi Terwoord:        

Yeah. That was in September of 2019, and I had had some problems; bloody diarrhea one evening, and then the next morning the same thing. So, I called my husband at work, I said, “Things aren’t looking right. I think I’d better go to the emergency room.”

And so, we went there, they took blood work – so I think they knew something was going on – and said, “We’re going to keep you for observation.” So, then I knew it must’ve been something bad. And so, two days later, then I had a colonoscopy, and that’s when they found the tumor, and so that was the beginning of my journey.

Katherine Banwell:    

Mm-hmm. Had you had a colonoscopy before, or was that your first one?

Cindi Terwoord:        

No, I had screenings, I would get screenings. I had heard a lot of bad things about colonoscopies, and complications and that, so I was always very leery of doing that. Shame on me. I go for my other screenings, but I didn’t like to do that one. I have those down pat now, I’m very good at those.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah, I’m sure you do. So, Cindi, what helped guide your decision to join a clinical trial?

Cindi Terwoord:        

Well, I have a friend – it was very interesting.

He was probably one of the first people we told, because he had all sorts of cancer, and he was, I believe, one of the first patients in the nation to take part in this trial. It’s nivolumab (Opdivo), and he’s been on it for about seven years. And he had had various cancers would crop up, but it was keeping him alive.

And so, frankly, I didn’t know I was going to have the option of a trial, but he told me run straight to Cleveland Clinic, it’s one of the best hospitals. So, I took his advice. And the first day the doctor walked in, and then all these people walked in, and I’m like, “Why do I have so many people in here?” Not just a doctor and a nurse. There was like a whole – this is interesting.

And so, then they said, “Well, we have something to offer you. And we have this immunotherapy trial, and you would be one of the first patients to try this.”

Now, when they said first patient, I’m not quite sure if they meant the first colon cancer patient, I’m not sure. But they told me the name of it, and I said, “I’m in. I’m in.” Because I knew my friend had survived all these years, and I thought, “Well, I’ve gotten the worst diagnosis I can have, what do I have to lose?” So, I said, “I’m on board, I’m on board.”

Katherine Banwell:    

Mm-hmm. Did you have any hesitations?

Cindi Terwoord:        

Nope. No, I’m an optimistic person, and what they assured me was that I could drop out at any time, which I liked that option.

Because I go, “Well, if I’m not feeling well, and it’s not working, I’ll get out.” So, I liked that part of it. I also liked, as Dr. Funchain had said, you go in for more visits. And I like being closely monitored, I felt that was very good.

I’ve always kept very good track of my health. I get my records, I get my office notes from my doctor. I’m one of those people. I probably know the results of blood tests before the doctor does because I’m looking them up. So, I felt very confident in their care. They watched me like a hawk. I kept a diary because they were asking me so many questions.

Katherine Banwell:    

Oh, good for you.

Cindi Terwoord:        

I’m a transcriptionist, so I just typed out all my notes, and I’d hand it to them.

Katherine Banwell:    

That’s a great idea.

Cindi Terwoord:        

Here’s how I’m feeling, here’s…And I was very lucky I didn’t have many side effects.

Katherine Banwell:    

In your conversations with your doctor, did you weigh the pros and cons about joining a trial? Or had you already made up your mind that yes, indeed, you were going for it?

Cindi Terwoord:        

Yeah, I already said, “I’m in, I’m in.” Like I said, it had kept my friend alive for these many years, he’s still on it, and I had no hesitation whatsoever.

I wish more people – I wanted to get out there and talk to every patient in the waiting room and say, “Do it, do it.”

I mean, you can’t start chemotherapy then get in the trial. And if I ever hear of someone that has cancer, I ask them, “Well, were you given the option to get into a trial?” Well, and then some of them had started the chemo before they even thought of that.

Katherine Banwell:    

Mm-hmm. So, how are you doing now, Cindi? How are you feeling?

Cindi Terwoord:        

Good, good, I’m doing fantastic, thank goodness, and staying healthy. I’m big into herbal supplements, always was, so I keep those up, and I’m exercising. I’m pretty much back to normal –

Katherine Banwell:

Cindi, what advice do you have for patients who may be considering participating in a trial? 

Cindi Terwoord:

Do it. Like I said, I don’t see any downside to it. You want to get better as quickly as possible, and this could help accelerate your recovery. And everything Dr. Funchain mentioned, as far as – I really never brought up any questions about whether it would be covered. 

And then somewhere along the line, one of the research people said, “Well, anything the trial research group needs done – like the blood draws – that’s not charged to your insurance.” So, that was nice, that was very encouraging, because I think everybody’s afraid your insurance is going to drop you or something.  

And then the first day I was in there for treatment, a social worker came in, and they talked to you. “Do you need financial help? We also have art therapy, music therapy,” so that was very helpful. I mean, she came in and said, “I’m a social worker,” and I’m like, “Oh, okay. I didn’t know somebody was coming in here to talk to me.” 

But that was all very helpful, and I did get free parking for a few weeks. I mean, sometimes I’d have to remind them. I’d say, “It’s costing me more to park than to get treated.” But, yeah, like I said, I’m a big advocate for it, because you hear so many positive outcomes from immunotherapy trials, and boy, I’d say if you’re a candidate, do it. 

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Funchain, do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to leave the audience with? 

Dr. Pauline Funchain:

First, Cindi, I have to say thank you. I say thank you to every clinical trial participant, everybody who participates in the science. Because honestly, whether you give blood, or you try a new drug, I think people don’t understand how many other lives they touch when they do that.  

It’s really incredible. Coming into clinic day in and day out, we get to see – I mean, really, even within a year or two years, there are people that we’ve seen on clinical trial that we’re now treating normally, standardly, insurance is paying for it, it’s all standard of care. And those are even the people we can see, and there are so many people we can’t see in other centers all over the world, and people who will go on after us, right?  

 So, it’s an amazing – I wouldn’t even consider most of the time that it’s a personal sacrifice. There are a couple more visits and things like that, but it is an incredible gift that people do, in terms of getting trials. And then for some of those trials, people have some amazing results. 

And so, just the opportunity to have patients get an outcome that wouldn’t have existed without that trial, like Cindi, is incredible, incredible. 

What Are the Risks and Benefits of Joining a Clinical Trial?

What Are the Risks and Benefits of Joining a Clinical Trial? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Why should a cancer patient consider a clinical trial? Dr. Pauline Funchain of the Cleveland Clinic explains the advantages of clinical trial participation.

Dr. Pauline Funchain is a medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Funchain serves as Director of the Melanoma Oncology Program, co-Director of the Comprehensive Melanoma Program, and is also Director of the Genomics Program at the Taussig Cancer Institute of the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Funchain, here.

See More from Clinical Trials 101

Related Resources:

You’ve Chosen to Participate In a Clinical Trial: What Are Next Steps?

Understanding Common Clinical Trial Terminology

How to Find A Clinical Trial That’s Right for You


Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

Why would a cancer patient consider participating in a clinical trial? What are the benefits? 

Dr. Pauline Funchain:

So, I mean, the number one benefit, I think, for everyone, including the cancer patient, is really clinical trials help us help the patient, and help us help future patients, really.  

We learn more about what good practices are in the future, what better drugs there are for us, what better regimens there are for us, by doing these trials. And ideally, everyone would participate in a trial, but it’s a very personal decision, so we weigh all the risks and benefits. I think that is the main reason.  

I think a couple of other good reasons to consider a trial would be the chance to see a drug that a person might not otherwise have access to. So, a lot of the drugs in clinical trials are brand new, or the way they’re sequenced are brand new. And so, this is a chance to be able to have a body, or a cancer, see something else that wouldn’t otherwise be available.  

And I think the last thing – and this is sort of the thing we don’t talk about as much – but really, because clinical trials are designed to be as safe as possible, and because they are new procedures, there’s a lot of safety protocols that are involved with them, which means a lot of eyes are on somebody going through a clinical trial.  

Which actually to me means a little bit sort of more love and care from a lot more people. It’s not that the standard of care – there’s plenty of love and care and plenty of people, but this doubles or triples the amount of eyes on a person going through a trial. 

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah. When it comes to having a conversation with their doctor, how can a patient best weigh the risks and benefits to determine whether a trial is right for them? 

Dr. Pauline Funchain:

Right. So, I think that’s a very personal decision, and that’s something that a person with cancer would be talking to their physician about very carefully to really understand what the risks are for them, what the benefits are for them. Because for everybody, risks and benefits are totally different. So, I think it’s really important to sort of understand the general concept. It’s a new drug, we don’t always know whether it will or will not work. And there tend to be more visits, just because people are under more surveillance in a trial.  

So, sort of getting all the subtleties of what those risks and benefits are, I think, are really important. 

Katherine Banwell:

Mm-hmm. What are some key questions that patients should ask? 

Dr. Pauline Funchain:

Well, I think the first question that any patient should ask is, “Is there a trial for me?” I think that every patient needs to know is that an option. It isn’t an option for everyone. And if it is, I think it’s – everybody wants that Plan A, B, and C, right? You want to know what your Plan A, B, and C are. If one of them includes a trial, and what the order might be for the particular person, in terms of whether a trial is Plan A, B, or C.