When it comes to CLL symptoms, what’s fact and what’s fiction? Dr. Kerry Rogers reviews chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) symptoms and discredits common myths. Want more information? Download the Program Resource Guide here.
Dr. Kerry Rogers is a hematologist-oncologist at The James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. More about Dr. Rogers here.
Sure. Let’s talk about symptoms a little bit more. Here are a few things that we’ve heard from CLL patients. Are these fact or fiction? “I shouldn’t travel if I have CLL, since I may get an infection.”’
I think that is fiction. So, I’ve heard this, too, and the way I like to think about it is if you’re expected to live with CLL for a very long time, you had better go out and do the things you want to do. This is not supposed to keep you a prisoner in your house. Now, if you’re in the middle of starting some sort of more intensive treatment for it, or less intensive treatment, but you started last week, that is not a good time to go somewhere where there are no hospitals – in the middle of the Pacific Ocean or to rural Africa. So, you’ve gotta be smart about those things, but you wouldn’t go to rural Africa the week after you had a heart attack, either.
So, I think for people who are doing well, living with CLL, but aren’t needing some sort of – in situation where they need a lot of medical visits and care right now, definitely travel. And then, yes, you can get infections when you travel, but you can get infections in your own neighborhood, and I don’t think that keeping yourself only in your neighborhood or where you live is really gonna help you live any better.
You do have to be kind of smart about it. So, if you’re gonna go somewhere where there’s malaria, go to a travel clinic. Make sure that you take the advice of the travel clinic. If you’re going to Houston, you probably don’t need to do anything special. If you’re going to Central America, then you might wanna go to a travel clinic. And, as you know, most people with CLL are instructed to avoid live vaccines, so you have to tell the travel clinic, “I’m going X place. What are the recommendations? I’m not supposed to get live vaccines.” Sometimes, they can recommend low doses of antibiotics to avoid this. They have practical ways to avoid it – for ticks, if you tuck your pants into your socks.
So, being cautious and taking care not to get infections is good advice, but I don’t think it really helps people to limit their travel. Does that make sense? If someone got a stem cell transplant or something, that’s a different category. I’m talking about most people with CLL.
Sure. Well, you mentioned the problem with live vaccines and patients with CLL. Should patients with CLL get a flu shot or vaccines? Because we hear from some patients – they say they shouldn’t.
Yeah. So, because CLL is a cancer of the immune system cells – B lymphocytes – it makes the rest of the immune system function differently than in healthy individuals. So, the benefit that people get from vaccines if they have CLL is actually less, so the – if you get a flu shot, it doesn’t decrease your risk of getting the flu the same way it would for a healthy adult.
However, it’s still a good idea to do because people with CLL live at a higher risk of infection, and the way I view it is you should take every opportunity to decrease your risk for infection because influenza is curable, and if you can decrease your risk even a little bit, I would do it. Now, live vaccines are a bit of a debate because people who are immunocompromised don’t get them. So, live vaccines are a live virus similar to the on that you’re being vaccinated against.
So, examples of live vaccine are the oral typhoid vaccine, the MMR vaccine – I know we’re having measles outbreaks in some parts of the country, so MMR is kind of off the table. There is an intranasal flu vaccine that’s live. It’s very hard to get these days and uncommon to be offered. So, I recommend people get all the vaccines they’re due as long as they’re killed vaccines.
There is now a new shingles vaccine called Shingrix, which is a killed vaccine. I’ve had many patients get that. We’re not sure how well it works in CLL; probably not as well as in healthy adults, but it is safe, so if you get your hands on it – it’s been on shortage – there’s no reason not to get these things. I do think for people that have had really severe vaccine reactions that’s always an individual conversation with your doctor.
Yeah, it sounds like it. How about this one? “I’m not experiencing symptoms, so I don’t need treatment.”
That may or may not be true. So, in some cases, especially if people are in monitoring or observation for their CLL, the goal is to start treatment before you get horribly sick, right?
So, in some cases, you’ll see that the changes in the blood really predict that someone’s going to start to be really sick from CLL in the next few months. You might see their platelet count is going down, or their hemoglobin is going down a lot, and so, there’s kind of a level – so, a platelet of 100 and hemoglobin of 10-11 where you think about treatment. It’s not like, “Oh, you hit this level, you need to do treatment tomorrow,” but it’s time to plan a treatment.
Also, that is the one group of CLL patients where a bone marrow biopsy is really needed to make sure that the decrease in blood counts is CLL and not something else. Most of those people feel fine, but if your platelet count is headed down, it’s probably best to start treatment before your platelet count is below 10 and you start having bleeding symptoms. So, there are some people who are recommended to take treatment for CLL because their doctor has noticed that they’re gonna be at risk for developing problems or symptoms that might make them feel much less well.
And so, you wanna start the treatment when you’re still feeling good and before you’re having a lot of bleeding and issues. However, the majority of people who don’t have symptoms don’t need treatment for it. Quite a while ago, they did randomize people with intermediate- or high-risk CLL to either chemotherapy at diagnosis or delayed until they had one of those treatment indications I’ve been talking about, and treating it with chemotherapy just because you’ve diagnosed it did not help people live longer or better. So, if people are not having symptoms and their doctor doesn’t notice a problem, there’s no reason to treat it.
We talked a little bit how diet and exercise can help with symptoms, but can they control symptoms? Tricky question.
I’m not sure. I think that’s really individual. The thing I get asked all the time is, “What diet do I go on to make my CLL go away, or so I never need treatment?” And, there are no evidence-based diets to make your CLL go away. The coffee enema thing doesn’t work. The no-sugar thing – I’m not sure that works.
I do tell my patients to try to eat and behave as if they’re gonna be around a long time because people with CLL usually expect to live many, many years, and heart disease is still killing people in this country, so you can’t stop managing your diabetes, you can’t start eating hamburgers when you have horrible heart disease, so I think you still have to follow a regular, healthy adult diet.
Most people feel better if they eat fruits and vegetables and try to eat a well-balanced adult diet, so I think that helps pretty much everyone, even healthy adults, but I don’t have any specific diet to control CLL symptoms, although I did have one guy that said ever since he’s been eating white toast every morning, all his symptoms are much better. So, if you find something that works for you, it doesn’t matter what it is. If it’s working out for you, you should do it.