Posts

CLL & COVID 19: What Do Patients Need to Know?

CLL & COVID 19: What Do Patients Need to Know? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

What do people with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) need to know about COVID-19 (coronavirus)? CLL expert Dr. Steven Coutre provides guidance for patients during the current global pandemic.
 
Dr. Steven Coutre is a Professor of Medicine in the Hematology Department at Stanford University Medical Center. Learn more about this expert.

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit


Related Resources

 

How Can CLL Patients Take Advantage of Telemedicine

 

PEN-Powered Activity Guide: Utilizing Telemedicine Tools & Staying Connected

 

How to Learn More About Your CLL


Transcript:

Dr. Steven Coutre:

Well, of course, we are in the COVID era. We don’t know how long this is going to last. And so, a very common questions that comes up from our patients with CLL is what impact does this have on them and are they more susceptible, you know, the natural things that people wanna know. With CLL in general, there probably is some compromise to the immune system, but it’s really hard to measure or quantify. Certainly, individuals who’ve had a lot of chemotherapy in the past, who have advanced disease are more susceptible to infections. In contrast, someone who’s without symptoms, has a low burden of disease probably is close to being like somebody who doesn’t have CLL. So, there’s certainly a spectrum.

Really, we just try to advise following the guidelines that we are all following in terms of social distancing at present, at being aware of being around others too closely, or those who may have symptoms. So, I think, in a way, what everyone is doing now is something that is beneficial to patients with CLL, and certainly other cancers, with respect to infection risk.

Now, what about do we have any information? Is somebody with CLL more susceptible to getting COVID? What if you do get the infection? Is it going to be more severe because you have underlying CLL? And, at least in general terms, the answer seems to be no. That’s really just based on experience, anecdotal experience, certainly in areas like New York City or Italy, for example, where infectious rates have been quite high. Colleagues have commented that their patients don’t seem to be more ill simply because they have the underlying disease or because they’re on a certain treatment, for example.

There’s actually some very interesting data suggesting that perhaps the BTK inhibitors, Ibrutinib, Acalabrutinib, et cetera, might actually confer benefit, might lessen some of the consequences of the infection, and as a result, large clinical trials have started for patients without CLL. Just anyone who has a significant COVID infection who’s hospitalized, they’re testing that hypothesis. So, it’ll be very interesting to see what we learn from this. Perhaps what we’ll learn is that being on a drug like that might actually be beneficial.

It’s certainly natural to be hesitant to come into a healthcare facility because of the risk of infection, and certainly that’s gonna vary quite a bit depending on where you are. At the height of the pandemic in New York City, of course, a lot of concern on the part of patients going into a hospital clinic, for example. Whereas, at our institution, the impact has been quite low. All institutions, of course, have taken any precautions they can to limit exposure, so, I’ve often told my patients that it’s probably safer to come into our clinic and get your blood drawn or see someone if you need to than going to the grocery store, for example, in terms of exposure.

But that’s very different than saying the same thing in the middle of New York City. So, I think you have to deal with each situation as it arises, and one would hope that your physician can give you guidance. And I think, in particular, what we can do is really decide how important it is to see somebody in person or have them come in and get a lab test there. I think in many, many, many cases, that can be avoided for the time being.

And that also is an important point, that we can provide reassurance that you know, you’re used to coming in every four months or every six months and having things checked, and in many cases we can reassure that individual that it’s okay to wait. It’s not critical to get that information right now.

So, remember that what we often emphasize in evaluating someone and making decisions when to treat is three things. It’s how you feel, what your exam is like, and what your blood counts look like. So, of course, you know how you feel. If something changed, you’re having night sweats, or a lot more fatigue, is it significantly different? Of course, you typically know if anything’s changing with your exam. Are your lymph nodes getting enlarged?

Do you notice discomfort in your abdomen because of an enlarging spleen?

And so, two of the three things you can sort of self-assess, in a way, and then based on what your blood counts have been showing over time, your physician can factor that in and decide how important it is to get that test now. And as I mentioned, in many, many cases, it’s perfectly fine to delay that. So, it’s not as difficult as it might seem to you to be able to come up with a reasonable assessment about how somebody might be doing, even in the absence of seeing them and doing an exam in person.

How Can CLL Patients Take Advantage of Telemedicine?

How Can CLL Patients Take Advantage of Telemedicine? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

In light of the global pandemic, many providers expanded their telemedicine options so that patients can connect with their physicians virtually and avoid in-person visits. Expert Dr. Steven Coutre explains how this approach could benefit people with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).

Dr. Steven Coutre is a Professor of Medicine in the Hematology Department at Stanford University Medical Center. Learn more about this expert.

Please Take Our Survey

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit


Related Resources

 

CLL & COVID 19: What Do Patients Need to Know?

 

PEN-Powered Activity Guide: Utilizing Telemedicine Tools & Staying Connected

 

How to Learn More About Your CLL


Transcript:

Dr. Steven Coutre:

Well, we are in a new era, at least temporarily, and, for example, we’ve switched almost exclusively to video visits. This had largely been used for patients who lived in remote areas. They didn’t have good access or ready access to healthcare providers, and so, the government reimbursed for those kinds of visits, but not for somebody who lived close by, for example.

Well, that all changed dramatically with the COVID infections, even for our patients on clinical trials. And we’ve done the grand experiment that never would have been done otherwise, of just suddenly doing all video visits, and I must say, it’s worked out quite well so far. I think patients are quite satisfied with it, by and large. It allows them to have their questions answered and continue to have appropriate monitoring if they’re on therapy, or even if they aren’t. And so, I think, when things improve, this will continue, to some extent. So, right now, I would expect that any CLL patient would have ready access to their hematologist or oncologist via video visit.

And also, I think this whole situation has promoted a lot more video conferencing, educational video conferencing. Not having to physically attend a conference in order to get information. So, I think they’ll see a lot more educational resources out there online for them.

Well, of course, with CLL, we’re also very interested in blood counts, as are our patients, and if we’re doing remote visits, or even if they live fairly close but aren’t coming in, we do try to get the lab work done, but that’s worked out quite well. We’re used to dealing with patients coming from far distances, and so, in the past, if we wanted to get a lab result in between visits, we would simply make those arrangements with their local lab. Everybody tends to have an internist, a family doctor that they see, and so they’re familiar with getting lab tests done near where they live, and in all cases, we’ve been able to accommodate that.

And now with the increasing of electronic medical record usage and interlinking of medical record systems, we can, for example, get lab tests done at a local lab and have those. Actually, those results are directly imported into the medical record. So, they’re easily accessible to us. So, I must say, it’s been a pleasant surprise to see how well this has worked.

A Look at Leukemia

What is Leukemia?

As with many other cancers, leukemia is not a singular disease. There are many types of leukemia, and while it is a common childhood cancer, leukemia actually occurs more often in older adults. Leukemia is the most common cancer in people under the age of 15, but it is most likely to affect people who are 55 or older. There are more than 60,000 cases of adult leukemia diagnosed each year, and it is more common among men than women. 

Leukemia is a broad term that describes cancer of the blood or bone marrow. It starts when the DNA of developing blood cells are damaged and the bone marrow makes abnormal cells. The abnormal blood cells are the leukemia cells which grow and divide uncontrollably. Unlike healthy cells that follow a life cycle, the leukemia cells don’t die when they are supposed to so they continue to build up, eventually overcrowding the blood. They crowd out normal white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets so those normal cells can’t grow and function. Eventually, there are more cancer cells than healthy cells in the blood. The type of leukemia is determined based on which blood cells are affected by the abnormal cells. Leukemia usually affects the white blood cells, called leukocytes, but can occur in other blood cells. There are four main types of leukemia: chronic, acute, lymphocytic, and myelogenous.

Leukemia that grows slowly is called chronic leukemia. The cancer cells form very slowly so the body can also continue to form healthy cells, but over time the cancer cells continue to grow and the leukemia worsens. 

Acute leukemia grows very quickly and gets worse really fast. It has been identified as the most rapidly progressing cancer, and it can develop and grow in a matter of days or weeks.

Lymphocytic leukemia forms in the part of the bone marrow that makes lymphocytes, which are white blood cells that are also immune cells. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is most common in older adults and makes up about 25 percent of adult leukemia cases. It is more common in men than women and is very rare in children. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) also affects older adults, but children younger than five have the highest risk of developing it.

Myelogenous leukemia forms in the bone marrow cells that produce blood cells, rather than forming in the actual blood cells. Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) accounts for about 15 percent of all leukemia cases in the United States. CML develops mostly in adults and is very rare in children. Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) is a rare cancer that develops quickly with symptoms of fever, difficulty breathing, and pain in the joints. It can be caused by environmental factors, and develops more often in adults than children, and more often in men than women.

There are also several less common types of leukemia. Most of these types are chronic, and each year in the United States, about 6,000 cases of these less common leukemias are diagnosed.

  • Chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML) develops from myeloid cells.
  • Juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia (JMML) is typically found in very young children and is another type of myeloid leukemia.
  • Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) is a subtype of AML.
  • Hairy cell leukemia is slow growing, chronic, and makes too many B cells that appear hairy wen viewed under a microscope.

Leukemia Possible Risk Factors

There are several risk factors linked to leukemia. There are environmental factors and genetic reasons why some people might develop leukemia. Some of the factors can be controlled while others can not. Age, smoking history, and exposure to hazardous chemicals are all possible risk factors. Other risk factors may include exposure to chemicals or medical treatments, personal health history, and family history. Some of the possible risk factors need more study to determine a definite link to leukemia, but being aware of your potential risk is important.

If you were exposed to chemotherapy or radiation therapy for another cancer you have a higher chance of getting leukemia later in life. Also, children who took medications to suppress their immune systems, such as after an organ transplant, may develop leukemia. Exposure to chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde, often found in cleaning products, hair dyes, and embalming fluid, may also increase your risk of developing leukemia. Smoking and exposure to workplace chemicals like gasoline, diesel and pesticides could also be a risk factor.

There are several syndromes, conditions, and genetic disorders that can also increase leukemia risk. Li-Fraumeni syndrome, a hereditary disorder, is linked to leukemia, and children with Down syndrome have a two to three percent increased risk of developing acute myeloid or acute lymphocytic leukemia. Other genetic disorders that increase leukemia risk are Fanconi anemia, and dyskeratosis congenita (DKC). The inherited immune system conditions ataxia-telangiectasia, Bloom syndrome, Schwachmai-Diamond syndrome, and Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome also increase the risk of leukemia. Risk is also increased in patients with a history of blood disorders such as myelodysplastic syndrome, myeloproliferative neoplasm, and aplastic anemia. There are also viruses, such as the human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV-1), linked to leukemia.

Family history can also play a role in the development of leukemia. Having a sibling with leukemia is a risk factor, and having an identical twin with leukemia gives you a one in five chance of developing it yourself.

Preventing Leukemia

There are no known ways to prevent leukemia; however, being aware of risk factors and attempting to reduce them could help. Studies have linked leukemia to smoking and obesity, so quitting smoking and having a healthy body weight could help prevent leukemia. In addition, avoiding heavy exposure to dangerous chemicals might decrease your risk.

Signs and Symptoms

There are no reliable early screening methods for leukemia and, especially in chronic leukemia, the symptoms may not be very noticeable early on. Symptoms such as fatigue and fever may not be alarming at first, and could be mistakenly attributed to other causes. Acute leukemia symptoms come on faster and are typically more noticeable. All types of leukemia can have similar symptoms, but the symptoms each individual patient has can help determine the type of leukemia. Any symptoms should be checked by a doctor.

The most common symptoms of leukemia are:

  • Extreme fatigue that doesn’t respond to a good night sleep
  • Enlarged lymph nodes that are swollen and tender as a result of leukemia cells building up
  • Unexplained fever higher than 101 degrees that occurs frequently or lasts more than three weeks with no explanation
  • Night sweats that can also occur during the day, and can drench the sheets through to the mattress
  • Bruising and excess bleeding such as frequent nose bleeds caused by poor blood clotting which is also a symptom
  • Poor blood clotting is apparent when small red or purple spots, called petechiae, appear
  • Abdominal pain occurs when white blood cells accumulate in the liver or spleen
  • Bone and joint pain usually occurs in the hips or sternum where there is a lot of bone marrow that is being crowded by abnormal cells
  • Headaches and other neurological symptoms such as seizures, dizziness, visual changes, nausea, vomiting can occur due to leukemia cells in the fluid around the brain and spinal cord
  • Unintentional weight loss of five percent or more of your body weight in 12 months or less. Weight loss can sometimes be a result of having a swollen liver or spleen which can lead to loss of appetite
  • Frequent infections occur because white blood cells aren’t working properly to fight infections
  • Anemia, or iron deficiency, occurs when there is a lack of hemoglobin in the blood to transport iron in the body. Iron deficiency can cause labored breathing and pale skin. Symptoms of anemia are nausea, fever, chills, night sweats, flu-like symptoms, weight loss, bone pain, and tiredness

Complications from Leukemia

Leukemia can cause several serious complications due to the nature of the disease and treatment. Complications such as life-threatening infections can occur when white blood cells are damaged or reduced. When white blood cells aren’t fully functioning, the body can’t properly fight infections, so any infections a leukemia patient gets, such as urinary tract infections or pneumonia, can become very serious. Low platelet counts make bleeding in areas such as the brain, the lungs, and the stomach or intestines very dangerous, while high white blood cell counts can cause leukemia cells to spill over from the blood into other organs possibly causing respiratory failure, stroke, or heart attack.

There are other complications that are related to specific types of leukemia. Notably, the development of secondary cancers and blood cancers are more likely in CLL patients. Another complication of CLL is called a Richter transformation in which the cells can transform into an aggressive form of lymphoma. Kidney failure can be a treatment-related complication of AML or ALL.

Leukemia Diagnosis 

Leukemia can’t be diagnosed based solely on symptoms, but if leukemia is suspected, in a general exam, the doctor will look for an enlarged spleen or liver and take a blood sample. Further diagnostic testing may include a bone marrow test where a long needle is used to extract marrow from the center of a bone (usually the hip). The bone marrow test will help determine if the patient has leukemia and the type of leukemia.

Staging Leukemia

Staging is used to identify the size and location of cancer in the body. Typically cancers have four stages with Stage I usually indicating the cancer is in one location and is not very large. Stage IV indicates the cancer has grown large and spread far from the original location. Most leukemias aren’t usually staged because they are in the blood and therefore have already spread throughout the body. Instead, leukemia can be considered untreated, active, in remission, or recurrent. The exception is CLL, which can spread through the lymph nodes or the blood or bone marrow, so it does have three stages.

Treatment

The earlier treatment starts for leukemia, the better chance of remission. However, thanks to some exceptional advancements in leukemia treatment medications, doctors are often able to take the time they need to come up with the best treatment plan for each individual with leukemia, even in cases of acute leukemia if life-threatening complications are not present. When coming up with a treatment plan, doctors consider the patient’s age, overall health, and most importantly, the type of leukemia the patient has.

Leukemia treatment options vary for each type of cancer:

Watchful Waiting is used when treatment for slower growing leukemias, such as CLL, may not be necessary;

Chemotherapy is the primary treatment for AML, and sometimes a bone marrow transplant is needed;

Targeted therapies are medications that are tyrosine kinase inhibitors which target cancer cells, but don’t affect healthy cells. Targeted therapies have less side effects. Many CML patients have a gene mutation that responds very well to targeted therapy;

Interferon therapy is a drug that acts similar to a naturally occurring immune response which slows and then stops the leukemia cells. This therapy can cause severe side effects;

Radiation therapy is often used in ALL to kill bone marrow tissue before a transplant is done;

Surgery to remove the spleen may be necessary, depending on the type of leukemia;

Stem cell transplant is effective in treating CML and is usually more successful in younger patients. After chemotherapy or radiation or both are used to destroy the bone marrow, new stem cells are implanted into the bone marrow so noncancerous cells can grow.

Treatment for acute leukemia can take up to two years. It is usually done in phases. In the first phase the goal is to use chemotherapy for several weeks to kill the cancer cells and put the patient in remission. The second phase is designed to kill any remaining cancer cells using chemotherapy or stem cell transplant or both. The treatments and their side effects can be pretty harsh for older patients so researchers have been focusing on finding targeted therapies for acute leukemia, which have fewer side effects. Researchers are also hoping CAR T-cell therapy, which uses the patient’s own immune system to treat cancer, could be an eventual replacement for stem cell replacement therapy in older ALL patients. AML is more aggressive and often harder to treat, but several new targeted medications have been approved to treat AML. Researchers continue to look at other targeted therapy options and other drugs for AML.

In some cases of chronic leukemia, a stem cell transplant might be required, but the main treatment is oral medications that patients will probably take for the rest of their lives. Some research is investigating whether or not patients could potentially stop taking the medications at a certain point. 

CML treatments have really advanced and there are now several drugs that target the abnormal protein that causes CML. Thanks to these targeted medications CML patients now have a close to normal life expectancy and a 90 percent five-year survival rate. Clinical trials are looking at using targeted therapies to treat CLL as well and CAR T-cell therapies are also being considered for CLL treatment.

Recovery and Survival

Leukemia represents 3.5 percent of all new cancer cases in the United States, and it is the seventh leading cause of cancer death. The outlook for leukemia patients depends on which type of leukemia they have, their overall health, and their age. Leukemia is more likely to be fatal in older patients. The average age of those who die from leukemia is 75. However, the many advances in treatment options and medications, such as targeted therapies, have created a better prognosis for many. Leukemia has a 62.7 percent five-year survival rate, and some people with leukemia can now achieve complete remission.


Sources

Felman, Adam. “What to Know About Leukemia” Medical News Today, medically reviewed August 28, 2019, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/142595. Accessed March 9, 2020.

Raymaakers, Karen. “Symptoms of Leukemia” Verywell Health, medically reviewed November 1, 2019, https://www.verywellhealth.com/leukemia-signs-and-symptoms-2252435. Accessed March 9, 2020.

“Adult Leukemia: What You Need to Know” Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, updated December 5, 2019, https://blog.dana-farber.org/insight/2019/11/adult-leukemia-five-things-you-need-to-know/. Accessed March 9, 2020.

Wang, Eunice. “How Fast Does Leukemia Develop” Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, October 4, 2018, https://www.roswellpark.org/cancertalk/201810/how-fast-does-leukemia-develop. Accessed March 9, 2020.

“Reducing Your Risk for Leukemia” Canadian Cancer Societyhttps://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-type/leukemia/risks/reducing-your-risk/?region=on. Accessed March 9, 2020.

“Risk Factors for Leukemia” Canadian Cancer Societyhttps://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-type/leukemia/risks/?region=on. Accessed March 9, 2020.

Stöppler, Melissa Conrad. “Leukemia” MedicineNet, medically reviewed September 11, 2019, https://www.medicinenet.com/leukemia/article.htm. Accessed March 9, 2020.

“Leukemia Screening” Moffitt Cancer Centerhttps://moffitt.org/cancers/leukemia/diagnosis/screening/. Accessed March 9, 2020.

“Leukemia — Patient Version” National Cancer Institutehttps://www.cancer.gov/types/leukemia. Accessed March 9, 2020.

“Cancer Stat Facts — Leukemia” National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Programhttps://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/leuks.html. Accessed March 9, 2020.

“Advances in Leukemia Research” National Cancer Institute, June 25, 2019,https://www.cancer.gov/types/leukemia/research. Accessed March 9, 2020.

How Could CLL Treatment Advances Benefit You?

 

How Could CLL Treatment Advances Benefit You? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 Dr. Kerry Rogers reviews recent chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) treatment advances and explains how patients may benefit from evolving research.

Dr. Kerry Rogers is a hematologist-oncologist at The James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. More about Dr. Rogers here.

See More From The Fact or Fiction? CLL Series

Subscribe to stay up-to-date in the latest information in CLL treatment

* indicates required




Related Resources

  

Tips for Determining the Best CLL Treatment for You

  

The Truth About CLL Treatment Options

  

What You Need to Know About Developing CLL Research


Transcript:

Patricia:

Excellent. What do you think about the future – how do you feel about the future of CLL treatment? What makes you hopeful?

Dr. Rogers:                 

Oh. Well, I think a couple things. One is for CLL, in many ways, the future is now, and I think it’s only going to get better from here on out.

So, a little less than a year ago, two very large clinical trials were reported that compared our best chemotherapy to oral targeted therapy with an ibrutinib-based regimen for CLL, and the oral targeted therapy was superior in terms of something we call “progression-free survival,” which is how long people were alive without their CLL coming back or causing problems.

So, oral targeted agents, which, in general, not – everyone’s an individual, so until you try a treatment, you don’t know what’s gonna happen, but in general, have fewer side effects than chemotherapy, are better at controlling CLL than chemotherapy, so that’s what I like to put in the category of “the future is now,” and I think it’s only gonna get better. So, we’re improving on our existing oral targeted agents with next-generation drugs that have slightly different side effect profiles.

We are also studying combinations of these drugs, and oral targeted agents, and monoclonal antibodies to try to make treatment shorter, to try to get remissions deeper, to really try to improve the quality of life of people taking these therapies and not just improve how long they live with CLL.

And then, for people that really have the worst of the luck with CLL that have really high-risk findings, that don’t benefit for as long as we’d like from oral targeted therapies, that their CLL comes back after a couple years on those, I think the most exciting thing is really CAR T-cell therapies and those cellular-based therapies that aren’t donor stem cell transplant because I’ve seen people who have really benefited from those who had terrible problems from their CLL before that, and I think that’s gonna improve quality of life for a very specific subset of our CLL patients.

That is still in clinical trials for CLL, but has been in enough of them I can feel very confident that we have an idea about what the side effects are and how well it works. So, that’s really exciting. Can I add just one more thing about this before I…?

Patricia:                      

Absolutely.

Dr. Rogers:

So, I saw a consult recently for a person that was recommended to start treatment for CLL. His questions for me were, “Should I start treatment now, and what treatment should I take?” This person had never had a treatment before. So, I agreed with his oncologist, who said that he should start treatment now, and his oncologist had talked about several options, but I think with some of the changes in what we’re recommending for CLL, his oncologist had also wanted him to come see me to get a recommendation too, so it was like, “Oh, that’s great. Why don’t you go see Dr. Rogers at Ohio State and see what you should do?”

And so, one of the things he had discussed with the two oncologists in his office closer to his home were, “Oh, we have these – we have ibrutinib, it’s a really outstanding oral targeted agent, but you’ve gotta take it for a really long time, so why don’t you just take chemotherapy, because I think something better will come along?”

And, I was like, “This something better. Literally, this was demonstrated to be better than the chemotherapy. Something better did come along, and it’s this.” So, ibrutinib is better than chemotherapy. I think the idea of “Why don’t we do a less effective treatment because something better might come along?” is not true anymore. We have something better. And, he actually decided to enroll in a randomized phase 3 trial that’s gonna set the new standard of care in CLL, so he was very excited to get treatment as part of a research study. I think he decided that was actually really important to him, and he really liked what the study was.

But, it was just – it was kind of like, “Maybe something better will come along.” I’m like, “Something did.” So, that’s kind of the nice position that many people with CLL are in now. There’s still a lot of work to be done in CLL, but I just get increasingly hopeful as therapies get easier to take and more effective.

The Truth About CLL Symptoms

 

The Truth About CLL Symptoms from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

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.

See More From The Fact or Fiction? CLL Series


Related Resources

  

How to Take Control of Your CLL Symptoms

  

CLL Genetic Tests: How Do Results Impact Treatment and Care?

  

Overwhelmed By a CLL Diagnosis? Key Steps to Take


Transcript:

Patricia:

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.”’

Dr. Rogers:

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.

Patricia:                      

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.

Dr. Rogers:                 

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.

Patricia:

Yeah, it sounds like it. How about this one? “I’m not experiencing symptoms, so I don’t need treatment.”

Dr. Rogers:

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.

Patricia:                      

We talked a little bit how diet and exercise can help with symptoms, but can they control symptoms? Tricky question.

Dr. Rogers:                 

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.

How to Take Control of Your CLL Symptoms

How To Take Control of Your CLL Symptoms from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 From fatigue to swollen lymph nodes, Dr. Kerry Rogers discusses her approach to managing common chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) symptoms.

Dr. Kerry Rogers is a hematologist-oncologist at The James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. More about Dr. Rogers here.

See More From The Fact or Fiction? CLL Series


Related Resources

  

The Truth About CLL Symptoms

  

Fact or Fiction? CLL Treatment & Side Effects

  

Overwhelmed By a CLL Diagnosis? Key Steps to Take


Transcript:

Patricia:

Dr. Rogers, we’ve talked a little bit about symptoms – fatigue, night sweats, swollen lymph nodes. How do you manage the symptoms of CLL?

Dr. Rogers:

That’s a good question. So, if people have enough symptoms from CLL that’s really impacting their life significantly, then I suggest they take a CLL treatment.

So, if people have big lymph nodes that are interfering with what they’re doing – like I said, that nice man that was too fatigued to get his mail off his porch – that’s a reason to do a CLL therapy, treat the CLL, and make those symptoms go away. The really difficult ones are when you’re not sure if someone’s fatigue is related to CLL.

So, there’s many people I take care of that are living with chronic levels of fatigue that are not enough to impair their daily activities much, and you’re not sure what it could be related to, so one thing I like to do for things that aren’t clearly severe CLL symptoms is try to figure out what else could be causing it. So, I know myself and many other physicians I work with closely that treat CLL – we think we might diagnose more people with sleep apnea than fatigue related to CLL, and getting your sleep apnea treated is very important. So, it’s always important to do a very thorough look to make sure that these symptoms are from CLL.

And then, in terms of milder fatigue, treating CLL won’t always make that better because people usually live with some chronic side effects from the treatment, and it’s really hard to improve on feeling really good. So, if people have some mild fatigue but feel pretty good in general, it can really only make that worse at some point. And, I find that people themselves find ways to manage. Some people who might be in the actually elderly category like to nap, especially if they can and they’re retired.

Younger people actually shockingly sometimes find moderate exercise helpful. And, I know a lot of people find moderate exercise helpful for other forms of fatigue. So, for people living with mild levels of fatigue, that is definitely – people have those strategies to exercise. A couple people really improved their nutrition and found it helpful. So, sleeping better, focusing on maximizing benefit from things you can do, is good.

In terms of night sweats that people get sometimes that aren’t too severe, usually, they find ways to manage with fans or things like that in the bedroom.

Patricia:

These sound like important quality-of-life conversations with your physician.

Dr. Rogers:

Definitely. And, I think any time people have symptoms, it’s always good to talk to definitely your hematologist, especially if you have CLL and you don’t know if it’s CLL-related or it could be, and then, also, your primary care doctor or your general doctor, because sometimes, they’re really good at thinking of what else could be contributing, and occasionally, it’s a back-and-forth before you really determine what’s causing this and if it’s CLL-related, but either way, feeling better is really important.

The Truth About the Causes of CLL

The Truth About the Causes of CLL from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 What causes chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)? Dr. Kerry Rogers shares facts and addresses common misconceptions about the causes of CLL.

Dr. Kerry Rogers is a hematologist-oncologist at The James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. More about Dr. Rogers here.

See More From The Fact or Fiction? CLL Series


Related Resources

  

The Truth About CLL Symptoms

  

How to Learn More About Your CLL

  

Essential Lab Tests for CLL Patients


Transcript:

Patricia:                      

Here we go. Dr. Rogers, let’s talk about facts and fiction around CLL. Here’s what we’ve heard from CLL patients. Are these fact or fiction? “Exposure to pesticides caused my CLL.”

Dr. Rogers:                 

So, this is a very difficult one, and I will preface this by saying I’m not actually an expert in environmental exposures. I am more an expert in CLL management. But, there is some evidence that exposure to pesticides, including Roundup, increases the risk for developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and there’s a class-action lawsuit against Roundup that my patients keep asking me about.

I think it’s really hard to say for any one person whether or not their cancer is caused by pesticide exposure. If it’s someone that sprayed Roundup in their garden a couple times, then no, I wouldn’t think so. If it’s someone that was bathing in it regularly, exposed to it on the farm all the time, then it might have contributed, but there’s usually more than one thing that goes into someone getting CLL, so I would never plant the entire blame for something on one particular exposure, but I do think it’s quite possible that pesticide exposure can increase a person’s risk for developing CLL and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Patricia:                      

This is probably applicable just to veterans. “I was exposed to Agent Orange, and it caused my CLL.”

Dr. Rogers:                 

So, the same stuff I said about pesticides applies to Agent Orange, but Agent Orange can be a factor in developing CLL. It is in the VA list of diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure. So, for anyone that was exposed to Agent Orange that developed CLL, I would really encourage them to go to the VA and get their Agent Orange intake interview because they are likely entitled to VA benefits because they have CLL and were exposed to Agent Orange.

Patricia:                      

Do you hear that often from your patients who were exposed to Agent Orange?

Dr. Rogers:                 

That they’ve gone to the VA? Yes. Actually, I have a couple people that – many of these people get care at the VA, which is also great, but I do take care of a couple of people who have VA benefits due to Agent Orange exposure who have CLL for sure.

I also have a couple people that, despite the fact that they were exposed to Agent Orange, didn’t feel like going to the VA and seeing if they could get benefits, and I think that’s very reasonable, too. Whether or not people wanna do that is an individual decision, but is definitely on the list of Agent Orange exposure-related diseases. And so, the VA could provide care, medications for CLL, and in some cases, other financial benefits, so for anyone who would like, I think contacting the VA if you have CLL and were exposed to Agent Orange is not a bad idea.

Patricia:

How about this one? “CLL is only a disease of the elderly.”

Dr. Rogers:

Oh. Well, that one is definitely not true. So, CLL is not really a disease of children. I’ve never seen someone under 18 with it, and of course, the median age of diagnosis is somewhere between 65 and 70, sort of around 65, so that means that there’s a lot of people less than 65 living with CLL.

I’ve seen people as young as 20, I’ve seen some people in their 30s, I see many people in their 40s and 50s, and also, part of this question is what do you consider elderly? I don’t really know that I consider people in their 60s elderly in many cases. So, people in their 90s are usually willing to accept that they’re elderly, but people in their 60s, often, I wouldn’t call them elderly, and I know you draw these age numbers to say you’re a senior citizen, but there’s more things that contribute to the word “elderly.”

So, I guess what I’d say is this is – CLL is definitely not exclusively a disease of the elderly. There are many people in their 40s living with this, and I’ve seen people as young as their 20s, and then, also, you gotta figure out for yourself where you’re gonna draw the line and say “elderly.”

Patricia:

Sure. How about this one? “CLL is genetic, and my children may inherit it.”

Dr. Rogers:

So, this is a very difficult question. Instead of saying CLL is genetic, I think what I would say is that CLL is heritable, meaning it can run in families.

And, the rough estimate is that 1 in every 10 people that are living with CLL have someone in their family that will also get CLL, so we know that it does run in families – not in every case, but many cases – and I think at least in terms of people I’ve seen with this, people come and see me, and they either say, “Oh yeah, sure, my cousin, my uncle, my parents, my brother – everybody had CLL.” Or, they’ll say, “Really? Someone else in my family could get this?” So, it becomes pretty clear who’s gonna have it in their family and who’s not, but it does increase the risk of your family members getting CLL.

The interesting part of that is as a CLL community, I think we have not done a very – or, we have not been able to pin down a gene that causes it. So, if you think about breast cancer, colon cancer, you can say, “Oh, someone has a BRCA mutation, the family needs to get tested, we can do something to avoid your kids getting breast cancer.”

But really, with CLL, they’ve done a lot of research looking at family cohorts – and, by “they,” I mean not me specifically, but other CLL researchers have done this – and really have not identified anything that’s saying, “Oh, if you have this gene, you’re gonna get CLL, you’re at risk for CLL,” so, we can’t say it’s genetic and there’s one gene it’s pinned on, although it might be genetic based on a constellation of genes or a gene we haven’t identified. So, I think that’s kind of interesting.

The other thing that I’ll say that’s really important when thinking about whether or not your family could be at risk for CLL is that even people that have very what we call unfavorable or high-risk CLL, with something like deletion 17p, other family members that have CLL end up having a pre-CLL condition called monoclonal B lymphocytosis, or 13q CLL, or 11q CLL, so they have a completely different genetic feature for their CLL, even though you can tell they’re in the family as people with CLL.

So, it’s not that the CLL genetic factors we use to predict how you’re gonna do with it are inherited throughout the family, just the risk for getting CLL. I think that’s important to realize.

The other thing is that unlike breast cancer, where you say, “Oh, this is in your family, you should get breast MRIs, you should consider a prophylactic mastectomy,” there’s not a good screening system for CLL, and since when it’s diagnosed, it’s observed, and there’s no known way that we have to prevent it, it’s not like you have to go and get your entire family tested because we don’t have a genetic test, and a screening is not as beneficial as it is in breast cancer where you can get a surgery to prevent yourself from getting the disease. Does that make sense? Okay.

Patricia:

Thank you. What are some of the things that you hear from your patients that we haven’t mentioned?

Dr. Rogers:

About CLL?

Patricia:

About the way they got it.

Dr. Rogers:

Oh, the way they got it. Hmm.

I think the most common things I hear from people that we haven’t mentioned are in either the exposure category, to things that aren’t known to cause CLL, or infections, like, “Oh, I had a really bad bout of influenza,” or “I got pneumonia, and then I got CLL.” I don’t know if these – I don’t know if any infections that are demonstrated to cause CLL.

Sometimes, the white count can go up when people have infections in response to that, because they’re still living immune system cells, so if people get diagnosed when they have an infection because they got their blood drawn or because their white count went up because they were sick, but that’s something common I hear. And so, it’s really hard to say, “Your bout of pneumonia isn’t why you got this,” but it is frequently how people get diagnosed with that, so I hear that sometimes.

Patricia:

What are the actual causes of CLL? What do we know?

Dr. Rogers:

So, CLL, like most blood cancers is – the way I like to think about it is that your blood cells are one of the most rapidly growing and dividing cells in the body.

You know how over the course of your lifespan, your skin sloughs off, your hair grows, you have to cut it? So, your blood cells divide and turn over within your body, and they’re really quite rapidly dividing, and when cells divide, they replicate their genetic material, and just because it happens so many times over the lifespan, they make mistakes and pick up mutations.

So, many of the mutations they pick up either cause that cell to die, which is fine, or cause your immune system to attack it as abnormal, which is fine. But, in some cases, the mistake or mutation they made when the cells were dividing causes the calls to become broken or mutated in a very specific way that makes them CLL. And, it’s probably not just one mutation; it’s probably a series of them that accumulate to cause CLL.

And so, some of these things are those things we test for in a FISH panel, like 17p is an abnormal genetic change that happened as these cells were dividing over the course of the person’s lifespan, but there’s probably more changes than that that go on, and eventually, the cells become CLL, grow out of control, and have the common features of CLL. So, that’s how I like to think about it.

And then, these questions of “Oh, did pesticides contribute? Did this contribute? Did Agent Orange contribute?” is really just about did those agents cause your cells to break or mutate more, or in a specific way that would make them CLL? So, a lot of things that cause cancers in general, and not just CLL or increased risks for cancers in general, are things that alter, break, or change DNA.

CLL Staging: What Does It Mean for You?

 

CLL Staging: What Does It Mean for You? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Kerry Rogers explains chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) staging and how it can impact a patient’s prognosis, treatment options and overall care.

Dr. Kerry Rogers is a hematologist-oncologist at The James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. More about Dr. Rogers here.

See More From The Fact or Fiction? CLL Series


Related Resources

  

How to Learn More About Your CLL

  

Tips for Determining the Best CLL Treatment for You

  

Essential Lab Tests for CLL Patients


Transcript:

Patricia:

Let’s talk a little bit about how CLL is staged, Dr. Rogers.

Dr. Rogers:

So, unlike most cancers, where CLL is staged with CT scans or PET scans, the staging for CLL is actually remarkably simple, and I really like this because it limits the amount of testing you have to do for people, especially the people that might be just monitored for their CLL or observed. You don’t wanna put them through a lot of intensive testing they don’t need. So, the only two things you need to properly stage CLL are a complete blood count and a good physical exam.

So, in the United States, we use something called RAI staging, which is R-A-I staging, and before I launch into what it is, I will just say that even RAI stage 4 CLL is very treatable, and people do well for many years, so this is not the same as when you think about lung cancer or breast cancer staging, where stage 4 is a much worse spot than stage 1. The staging for CLL – all of it is still very treatable.

So, RAI stage 0 is when you only have an increase in lymphocytes, which is the CLL cells in the blood. Stage 1 is when you have increasing lymph nodes in addition to that. Stage 2 is an increased size of the liver or spleen. And then, if someone has anemia from CLL, then it’s stage 3, and stage 4 is if you have low platelets from CLL. So, 3 and 4 are indications that the bone marrow’s not working well due to CLL.

Patricia:

Dr. Rogers, it seems like CLL is a very manageable disease. What are you considering when you’re making a prognosis with a patient?

Dr. Rogers:

So, for many people, CLL is a very manageable disease. Like I said, some people have had CLL longer than I’ve been a doctor and have needed no treatment for it. However, there are people with CLL that go on to have a lot of difficulty from it, including not doing well with more than therapy or needing really new, advanced therapies, like something called CAR T-cell therapy.

So, for any individual person, you can never say how it’s gonna turn out for them, but we do use our experience taking care of lots of people with CLL to make an educated guess as to if this person’s gonna be someone that’s gonna expect to need a lot of treatment in their lifetime, or maybe no treatment in their lifetime.

And, the main things we look at in addition to just the staging or are they having symptoms or problems from CLL yet is molecular testing. So, these are genetic tests just on the cancer cells, so they’re not genetic tests that other people in the family get tested for, it’s just changes in the cancer cells, so that can give us a guess as to how long before people need treatment and how well they’ll respond to treatment.

And, I know a lot of people are probably already familiar with this, but there’s a particular chromosome change you can test for called deletion 17p, and that predicts a shorter time to needing treatment, needing more treatments in your lifetime, maybe going on to needing those advanced treatments like CAR T-cell therapy.

It used to be recommended that people with 17p get regular like-donor stem cell transplants, which, in some cases, is still done. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, there’s a chromosome change called deletion 13q, which predicts that in many cases, people don’t need treatment for many years and do very well. So, there’s a panel of chromosome changes that can predict where people are gonna fall on the spectrum.

The other chromosome change that’s become important is something called complex karyotype – and again, this is just in the CLL cells, but the karyotype is the arrangement of the chromosomes and these – the other tests I was talking about are chromosome changes picked up with a test called FISH. This is just looking at all the chromosomes, what they look like, and if there are three unrelated genetic abnormalities are more, it’s something called a complex karyotype, and it predicts people will fall in this category of needing more treatment or having more things to do with their CLL in their lifetime rather than not.

And then, the third thing that is really important is something called – and, this is gonna sound long – but, it’s immunoglobulin heavy chain gene mutational status, and mutations in the immunoglobulin heavy chain gene occur normally as these B cells mature, so people that are mutated have more mature cells that became CLL, and people that are unmutated have less mature cells, and people who are mutated that have more mature cells tend to have fewer problems from CLL in their lifetime, and there’s a few implications for CLL treatment for that category.

So, I kind of take all those things into consideration, and then, the other thing that I think is important to consider is newer molecular testing, but that’s still in development, so I think I’ll just end there for now in what I take into account.

Patricia:

I did want to ask one follow-up. Dr. Rogers, how often do you like to check in with your patients with CLL?

Dr. Rogers:

Oh, that’s an excellent question, because I think it really depends on how they’re doing.

So, people that have had a lot of changes in their CLL, like the white counts increasing, healthy blood counts going down, lymph nodes changing – then usually, I see them back more often, so I even see someone maybe six or eight weeks later if they have a lot of changes. And then, generally, people who are having changes in their CLL are taking treatment for CLL; I’ll see them at least every three months.

However, like I said, there are people who have had this CLL for decades with no changes in how their disease is, so those people I’ll see every six months, or even sometimes once a year, especially if it’s been 10 years and nothing has changed with the CLL. Even though I like them and enjoy seeing them, I’m sure they have things they’d like to do rather than coming to see me.

Key Signs That It’s Time to Treat Your CLL

Key Signs That It’s Time to Treat Your CLL from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 Dr. Kerry Rogers defines chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and reviews key indicators that could signal it’s time for a patient to begin treatment.

Dr. Kerry Rogers is a hematologist-oncologist at The James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. More about Dr. Rogers here.

See More From The Fact or Fiction? CLL Series


Related Resources

  

Fact or Fiction? CLL Treatment & Side Effects

  

Tips for Determining the Best CLL Treatment for You

  

CLL Genetic Tests: How Do Results Impact Treatment and Care


Transcript:

Patricia:

Dr. Rogers, let’s just get a brief overview of CLL and how it progresses.

Dr. Rogers:

So, I’m sure everyone already knows that chronic lymphocytic leukemia is a chronic blood cancer of a cell called the B lymphocyte, and with the frequency that people are getting blood tests these days in the United States, the most common way that I see people diagnosed with this at this time is actually just having an increased white blood cell count when they went to get routine blood counts.

So, it seems like the majority of people being diagnosed are diagnosed at a time when they’re not actually having symptoms from the disease, and maybe everyone already knows or not, but the way that’s managed is that the disease is actually just monitored until some sort of what I like to call “problem” from it develops.

So, I’ll go over what the problems are that can come along as the CLL progresses, but it’s important to realize that there’s many people alive and living with CLL doing very well and not having any problems from the disease yet, and I’ve seen a couple people that have had this disease longer than I’ve been a doctor, and one person that almost had this longer than I’ve been alive with no problems from it.

So, developing something from CLL that’s gonna need treatment is not universal. So, as the – for the majority of people, though, CLL – over its natural history – will go on to progress to cause what I like to refer to as “problems” from it. Some people call them “treatment indications.”

So, when problems are developing is about the time you consider treatment before you get really sick from it, and there’s a couple main ways that the CLL can cause problems. One is that the CLL can build up in the places where those cells live, which is the lymph nodes, so people can get really big lymph nodes in their neck, in their groin area, sometimes inside the body, causing problems. And, lots of people have small lymph nodes that aren’t causing problems, and that’s okay, but if they become really big or problematic, then it’s time to do something about them.

The cells can also build up in the bone marrow, so the bone marrow produces all your healthy, normal blood cells that go into the blood and have a lifecycle in the blood. So, if your bone marrow fills up with CLL cells, then you can’t produce the regular, healthy blood cells, and it’s time to do something about the CLL.

Sometimes, the white count can get really high, and that’s not always a reason to do something, but most people do see – over the natural history or course of having CLL – their white blood cell count and lymphocyte count increases, and there’s not actually a firm number where you say, “Boy, you hit X number, it’s time to treat this,” but if the count is increasing rapidly, then usually, you want to treat this before it increases so much that you develop an issue from that. And then, the last category of things that happen with CLL that’s a problem from it are what we call constitutional symptoms.

So, this can be fatigue that’s limiting your activities, like I took care of someone that was too tired to get the mail from his porch due to CLL. He’s doing great now, but that would be a problem. Sometimes drenching night sweats or an extreme weight loss – and, I’m not talking about people that do Atkins diet lose weight, I’m talking about people that are eating everything and losing weight just because of the CLL.

And, the reason this happens that – CLL is a cancer of B lymphocytes, which are immune system cells, so they can release some of the same chemical mediators that your immune system releases for an infection, and that’s what causes some of those symptoms. But, the main things that progress over the course of having CLL are increasing lymph nodes, lowering of your healthy blood counts due to increasing CLL in the bone marrow, the white count can go up rapidly, or people can develop really problematic constitutional symptoms from it.

How Leukemia is Diagnosed

Introduction to Leukemia

Cancer and neoplastic lesions are affecting our lives every day. Nearly 40% of the world’s population is affected by cancer—irrespective of age, gender, and ethnicity. Equally detrimental to cancer’s physical manifestations are the psychological influences. However, medical advancement and new research are helping to to combat this life-threatening disease.

Of all the cancers of the body, the most treacherous is Leukemia. It is a cancer of blood cells. Humans have three kinds of blood cells: red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Leukemia involves the malignant proliferation of white blood cells (WBC).

Our white blood cells are major components of our body’s defense mechanism. They play a vital role in fighting against diseases, whether bacterial, viral or fungal in nature. They originate within the bone marrow, spleen and lymph nodes.

A person suffering from Leukemia has poor white blood cell functioning. WBCs start to divide abnormally eventually outgrowing the normal number of cells.

Leukemia has 4 types:

  1. Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML)
  2. Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML)
  3. Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ACL)
  4. Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)

1. Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML)

Acute Myelogenous Leukemia is a heterogeneous clonal disorder. It is characterized by immature myeloid cells and bone marrow failure. It commonly affects children and adults. Studies have suggested the disease arises from recurrent hematopoietic stem cell genetic alterations.

2. Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML)

Chronic Myeloid Leukemia is a myeloproliferative (slow-growing blood cancer) disorder characterized by the existence of a balanced genetic translocation of chromosomes 22 and 9. It mostly affects adults. CML consists of 3 distinct phases: chronic, accelerated, and blast phases.

The history of patients with CML shows 3-5 years of chronic stage proceeding to a fatal blast phase and then progressing to an accelerated phase.

3. Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)

Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia is the second most common Leukemia occurring in adults. Like other Leukemias, ALL’s pathophysiology is also based on chromosomal abnormalities and genetic alterations which happen to take place in differentiation and proliferation of lymphoid precursor cells present in the bone marrow and blood. In adults, the precursors of B- lymphocytes are greater in number than the malignant T- lymphocytes.

4. Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia is a tumor of CD5+ B cells that characterizes the deposition of tiny, mature lymphocytes in the blood, bone marrow and lymphoid tissues. Apart from the CD5 cells, other genetic alterations are involved in the pathogenesis of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia. Stromal cells, T cells and nurse-like cells in the lymph nodes also predominate.

Causes and risk factors for Leukemia

Although the exact cause of Leukemia is unknown, certain risk factors can contribute to making a person susceptible to it. These include radiation, viruses, exposure to benzene, smoking, genetics, and family history.

1. Ionizing radiations

Exposure to ionizing radiation comes from continuous radiation therapy for treating any pre-existing cancer. Prolonged exposure to X-rays is found mostly in people who work as radiologists and are exposed to persistent radiation. Patients who have received chemotherapy sessions for cancers are also prone to Leukemia. Ionizing radiations damage the DNA and result in the defective genetic makeup of stem cells.

2. Viruses

The Human T-lymphotropic Virus (HTLV-1) has been shown to have an association with Leukemia.

3. Exposure to benzene

Benzene is a toxic solvent used in cleaning chemicals and some hair dyes. Benzene’s toxic effects on the blood and bone marrow include increasing the risk of Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), myelodysplastic syndrome, and other hematological malignancies, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

4. Smoking

Smoking is not only detrimental for the lungs alone but for the entire body. Although the link between smoking and Leukemia is unclear, studies say it can affect the bone marrow and increase the chances of AML in young adults.

5. Genetic conditions

Chromosomal abnormalities are also responsible for increasing Leukemia susceptibility. Examples include Down syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome, Fanconi anemia, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Bloom syndrome, Ataxia-telangiectasia, and neurofibromatosis, to name a few.

6. Hereditary

The most common cause of Leukemia is family history. If any family member has had Leukemia it increases the risk for other blood relatives.

Signs and symptoms of Leukemia

The signs and symptoms of Leukemia vary with different forms. They are generally nonspecific and warrant investigations for proper diagnosis.

Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)

The signs and symptoms of AML are:

  • Fever
  • Pain in bones and joints
  • Pale skin
  • Easy bruising and contusions
  • Recurrent infections
  • Unusual bleeding, epistaxis, bleeding gums

Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML)

The signs and symptoms of CML are:

  • Fatigue and muscle weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pyrexia
  • Increased sweating mostly during the night
  • Cachexia (weight loss)
  • Abdominal discomfort secondary to spleen enlargement
  • Stomach bloating
  • Itching
  • Pain in joints and bone

Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)

The signs and symptoms of ALL are:

  • Joint pain and muscle fatigue
  • Fever
  • Frequent infections
  • Epistaxis (Nose bleed)
  • Lumps felt around the neck, groin and underarms as a result of lymph node swelling.
  • Pale skin
  • Shortness of breath

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)

The signs and symptoms of CLL are:

  • Nocturnal sweating
  • Fever
  • Recurrent infections
  • Fatigue and constant tiredness
  • Cachexia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stomach bloating as a result of splenomegaly (enlarged spleen)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pea-sized swelling or lumps in groin, neck or armpits.

Diagnosis of Leukemia

Early detection can prevent complications. The earlier the diagnosis the easier treatment is. Medical advancement has made diagnosis easier than ever before. Some of the essentials to reach an accurate and precise diagnosis are enlisted below.

History and examination

A proper and detailed history is the key to an ideal diagnosis. It involves asking relevant questions related to the signs and symptoms that can link to the suspected disease.

Your physician might ask the following questions:

  1. How long have you been feeling a fever?
  2. What is the temperature?
  3. Do you feel a loss of appetite?
  4. Have you experienced prolonged bleeding after a cut?
  5. Have you noticed any changes in weight recently?
  6. When did you notice lumps?
  7. Are these lumps felt, painful and movable?
  8. Did you feel the lumps gradually increasing in size?
  9. Do you face difficulty in breathing?
  10. Do you feel you sweat a lot while sleeping?
  11. Are you taking any medications?
  12. Have any of your family members had any diseases?
  13. When did you feel the need to visit the physician?

The answer to the above questions can lead to the next step, investigations.

Investigations for Leukemia

Investigations are the major component involved in diagnosis as they make the suspected disease clear to understand. These include blood tests, radiology and biopsy.

1. Blood tests

  • Complete Blood Count (CBC)
  • White Blood Cell (WBC) differential
  • Blood smear
  • Tumor markers
  • Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis
  • BCR ABL1
  • Genetic tests for targeted cancer therapy
  • Chromosome analysis

The most commonly used test is the Complete Blood Count (CBC) which shows a clear picture of the abnormal growth of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

2. Radiology

The excessive proliferation of the cells in the bone marrow leads to marrow expansion and invasion of the cortex which, in later stages, can be seen by radiographic studies. A simple X-ray can reveal any spot bone changes. In some circumstances, a CT-scan may be needed to extensively study the disease and prognosis.

X-ray findings may include:

  • Osteolytic lesions; most commonly seen in Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia seen in small and flat bones, metaphysis of long bones.
  • Metaphyseal bands (classical Leukemia lines)
  • Bone destruction
  • Some pathological fractures
  • Radiological lesions, in later cases, are seen in the form of vertebral collapse, osteolysis of bones and avascular osteonecrosis.

3. Bone marrow biopsy

This is the gold standard investigation to diagnose Leukemia. This invasive procedure is done after the suspicion of Leukemia or when the blood test reports point to a Leukemic picture.

The procedure involves the removal of a small sample of bone marrow from the hipbone. A long, thin is the needle is used to extract the bone marrow. Once the sample has been taken it is sent to the laboratory where the histopathologists study the tissue microscopically.

Prior to examining the histopathologist or the lab technician prepares a slide. During the process, the specimen is then cut into thin slices. The sectioned structure is dyed using different dyes. The dye discriminates against the parts of the cells. The section is then placed on a glass slide and then covered with a slip on the top to keep the specimen intact. The slide is now ready to be placed under the microscope.

The samples examined under the microscope are then studied based on the type of cells, how the cells are arranged, whether the cells are normal or abnormal etc.

The microscopic findings may reveal:

  • Acute Myeloid Leukemia

Increase in bone marrow cellularity, consisting of granulocytic or monocytic forms a number of erythroid precursors

  • Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia

Hypercellular bone marrow with multiple tightly packed lymphoblasts that have undetectable cytoplasm, round irregular shape, divided nuclei, and dispersed chromatin. The bone marrow has B and T lymphoblasts with indistinguishable morphology along with necrosis in some areas.

Treatment for Leukemia

Treating Leukemia challenges all medical practitioners. Its success and failure solely depend on the extent of the disease and how far has it spread within the body.

Following are treatment options that can help fight Leukemia.

1. Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs to kill or halt the proliferation of cancer cells. Generally, chemotherapy is administered orally or intravenously. In some patients, the chemotherapeutic agent is given intrathecally, i.e., injected into the CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) that bathes the brain and spinal cord. This is done after performing a lumbar puncture and injecting chemotherapeutic drugs, such as methotrexate. The course is usually repeated every three weeks.

2. Radiotherapy

Compared to chemotherapy that attacks all the cells of the body, including the healthy ones, radiotherapy is a localized treatment regimen. High ionizing-energy radiation emits to destroy cells that have an increased proliferation rate. Radiotherapy can either be given to cure the disease (therapeutic) or to improve the signs and symptoms encountered during the disease course (palliative).

3. Stem cell or bone marrow transplantation

Transplants are widely used in management and treatment of the disease. Bone marrow is transplanted from a patients’ family member, or another person who bears the same type of bone marrow, into the diseased person. The survival rates vary with different factors but the cost and affordability remain the major concern in this treatment modality.

4. Immune therapy

Immune therapy is another set of treatments that has some promising result in managing Leukemia. The immune therapy works by promoting the immune cells of the body to fight against cancer cells. One of the successful regimens in immune therapy is Gleevec, commonly given in Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. CML patients live a long, symptomless life with the daily oral administration of this drug.

Complications with Leukemia

Though Leukemia is curable, treatments may give rise to certain complications–basically the body’s response to the treatment given. The complications mostly arise from chemo and radiation.

They can include:

  • Anemia
  • Skin rashes
  • Altered taste sensations
  • Soreness of the mouth and throat
  • Liver dysfunction
  • Hair loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Bleeding
  • Fertility problems
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Neurological effects
  • Impaired sexual activity

Relapse of the disease may also occur after some years.

Conclusion

The prognosis of Leukemia depends on how far has the disease has spread but the medical advancement has brought in new regimens that can now treat Leukemia at any stage. A person suffering from Leukemia and undergoing its treatment should be dealt with love, care, and pampering

How to help prevent Leukemia

Informational campaigns and awareness programs help people learn about the risk factors of Leukemia. Family members of Leukemia patients should undergo blood screenings to see if they have been affected. A good diet can help improve health status. Limiting use of benzene-infused chemicals can also make the disease less susceptible. Ceasing tobacco smoking can also help keep Leukemia at bay.

 

References

Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Leukemia: an overview for primary care

Acute Myeloid Leukemia: diagnosis and management based on current molecular genetics approach

Treatment of acute myeloid leukemia

Clonal hematopoiesis and preleukemia-genetics, biology, and clinical implications

No free rides: management of toxicities of novel immunotherapies in ALL, including financial

Adult Acute Myeloid Leukemia Treatment

Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia

Genetics and prognosis of ALL in children vs adults

Etiology of leukemia. A review

Symptoms of adult chronic and acute leukaemia before diagnosis: large primary care case-control studies using electronic records

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia: a comprehensive review and 2017 update

Acute myeloid leukaemia: optimal management and recent developments

Minimal Residual Disease (MRD): What Does it Mean for You?

Minimal Residual Disease (MRD): What Does it Mean for You? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

Dr. Matthew Davids defines the term minimal residual disease (MRD) and explains its role in managing chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).

Dr. Matthew Davids is the Associate Director of the CLL Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. More about this expert.

See More From The Path to CLL Empowerment

Related Resources

Essential Lab Tests for CLL Patients

Fact or Fiction? CLL Treatment & Side Effects

How to Learn More About Your CLL


Transcript:

Dr. Matthew Davids

So, one term that patients often come across when they’re looking online that they might not know exactly what it means is so-called MRD. This stands for minimal residual disease.

And MRD is increasingly becoming an important endpoint in our trials, meaning that it’s a test that we rely on to try to make decisions about treatment in the trials. And we’re hoping that this will be a strategy that we can eventually use in regular clinical practice.

So, what is MRD? Basically, MRD is a way to look, at a very, very molecular level, at tiny, tiny amounts of the disease. And this a feature of the fact that we have very effective treatments for CLL, and so we can give various treatments, whether it’s chemoimmunotherapy or drugs like venetoclax, for example. And then we can look under the microscope in, for example, the bone marrow tissue, and we might not see any CLL cells. So, we might call that a complete remission.

But often, there’s still evidence of molecular disease left behind that we can’t see under the microscope, but we can use very sophisticated biological techniques to actually detect what we call MRD. And we find that, if there is MRD present, that patients don’t tend to have as durable of a remission compared to when MRD is so-called undetectable.

So, it’s a very important term to understand. When patients get to an undetectable MRD state, that’s a very good thing. It means that they’re likely to have a very long response to whatever therapy they had. But you also have to remember that MRD itself has its limits of what it can detect. And so, just being undetectable for MRD does not mean that you’re necessarily cured of the CLL.

And there are patients who have undetectable MRD who later do have a recurrence of the CLL. But it does help us guide the treatment in terms of knowing that patients are in a good remission, that they may be able to stop the treatment that they’re on and enjoy a long response without the need for ongoing treatment.

But eventually, for most CLL patients, the disease will come back. And we can detect that sometimes with this MRD test as well. And that’s an interesting research question ongoing as to whether we should intervene at that point to restart therapy when we first see the MRD test become positive again. And hopefully, that’s something that we’ll continue to learn about as we further explore that question in clinical trials.

Diagnosed with CLL? An Expert Outlines Key Steps

Diagnosed with CLL? An Expert Outlines Key Steps from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

You’ve been diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), now what? Dr. Matthew Davids explains key steps to take following a diagnosis. Need help speaking up? Download the Office Visit Planner and bring it to your next appointment here.

Dr. Matthew Davids is the Associate Director of the CLL Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. More about this expert.

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit

Related Resources

 

Overwhelmed By a CLL Diagnosis? Key Steps to Take

 

Nervous About A Second Opinion? How to Confront Your Fears

 

How to Learn More About Your CLL


Transcript:

Dr. Matthew Davids

So, if I were diagnosed with CLL today, we’ve discussed some of the resources that are available in terms of educating one’s self about the disease: CLL Society website, other videos on VJHemOnc, things like this. There are other websites that give more basic information about the disease, for example, Lymphoma Research Foundation, American Cancer Society, American Society of Clinical Oncology.

So, personally, I would want to know a lot about the disease. And I would probably first turn to these particular resources, which I think can be very helpful.

I would certainly partner with a local oncologist hematologist who can help guide the management. But one thing that you should remember is that most general practitioners for oncology may only see a few CLL patients a year, and the field has changed quite a bit over the last few years. And it can be hard to stay completely up to date on all of these developments.

So, one thing that I would think would be very helpful for anyone diagnosed with CLL is that, if you do have access to a major center that has someone who specializes in CLL or at least in lymphomas, that can be a great resource. And so, I do recommend, if patients can do it, to try to seek out a second opinion from a CLL specialist. And this can be very helpful even if the recommendation is still just observation, that they can help educate about the disease, identify other resources for educational purposes, and just become a part of your team, to have them available down the line.

And I see many patients like this who come for a second opinion at diagnosis. And I kind of tell them, “Go back to your local doctor. Stay on observation. It’s likely you’ll do well for many years on this watch and wait strategy. But at the time when they’re recommending that you need treatment, come back and see me then. It’s easier to get in once I know you.”

And at that point, I can help reassess, 1.) Do I agree that treatment is really needed at that point? Sometimes, it’s actually possible to wait even a bit longer; and then, 2.) What would I recommend for the best treatment option at that time? Could be a clinical trial that might only be available at that center. And I think unless you have a CLL specialist on your team, it’s gonna be hard to know about those available resources.

So, it’s not that you necessarily need to follow exclusively with a CLL specialist. But it’s more to just have them involved, have them know about you. And that way, if you need them down the line, they’ll be available to help support you.

I think in terms of education and self-advocacy, this is a very personal issue. And so, for many of my patients, it’s very important that they are educated about the disease and kind of know the ins and outs of the different clinical trials and so forth.

But it’s also important to remember that that’s not gonna be true for every patient. A lot of my CLL patients are also older patients, and they may not want to know all the details of what’s going on. I think it is important to have someone who’s involved with your care know about these details. Ideally, if it’s not you, it might be a spouse or a partner or a child, for example. A lot of my older patients don’t wanna know all the details about the molecular biology and the clinical trials. But often, it’s their son or daughter who is there with them who wants to know this.

And so, I think it’s helpful often to bring a family member with you to the visits. Because as you can see even from today, there’s a lot of information to learn, and it can be hard to remember everything.

So, having someone else, another set of ears and eyes, someone else can maybe take some notes at the visit and review them with you later, I think can be very, very helpful in terms of your own self-awareness about the disease.

So, in general, I love when patients ask me questions. Sometimes, they are very savvy questions. They are familiar with the literature, and they can kind of really push me to explain my opinions and beliefs about certain treatments. And sometimes, they’re just very basic questions that may be seem silly to the patient but are really not silly questions.

Really, this is a brand-new area for most patients. They have no experience with this when they first start out. So, they should never feel like they’re bothering their oncologist with these questions. I think it’s really important for them to understand the basics of what’s going on. That should really be a minimum for every patient.

And then for patients who wanna know more about some of the details from the research and the clinical trials, I think their doctor should also be able to help explain that to them as well. So, they should never feel like they’re bothering their oncologist with their questions.

Could a Clinical Trial Be Your Best Treatment Option?

 

Could a Clinical Trial Be Your Best Treatment Option? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Is participating in a clinical trial a last resort or could it be your best treatment option? Dr. Matthew Davids explains the clinical trial process and what’s involved in patient participation.

Dr. Matthew Davids is the Associate Director of the CLL Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. More about this expert.

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit

Related Resources

   

Tips for Determining the Best CLL Treatment for You

   

The Truth About CLL Treatment Options

   

What You Need to Know About Developing CLL Research


Transcript:

Dr. Matthew Davids

My patients often ask me about clinical trials and whether I think that would be a good fit for them. I think there is, in some cases, a bit of a misconception that clinical trials are a last resort for our patients. And we do have some clinical trials that are exploring brand new mechanisms of a drug that have never been used before.

And in that scenario, I would only recommend a trial like that for a patient who has already exhausted all of the standard options.

But I think that, in my opinion, clinical trials should really be the first best choice for most patients. Because we have many trials in CLL that are using the drugs that are already approved, so we know that they’re gonna be effective. And now, we’re putting them together for the first time in new combinations and in new creative ways that will help to advance the field. And most of the trials we have in CLL are not randomized, placebo-controlled. So, patients know what they’re getting. They’re gonna be getting an effective therapy.

And this is a way that they can really get access to cutting-edge care. I would say when you’re a part of a clinical trial, you have a lot of other eyes watching you. In addition to your oncologist and the infusion nurses, for example, you also have research coordinators, research study nurses. Some centers have additional scheduling staff that helps with the clinical trials. So, it’s really a way to get excellent quality clinical care, often getting access to cutting edge treatments.

And so, here at Dana Farber, for example, we try to have a clinical trial option available for patients at every stage of the disease, so that we have trial options for patients who have never had treatment for their CLL, trial options for patients who have maybe only had one or two prior treatments, and then some of those other more experimental clinical trials for patients maybe who have exhausted some of the other options that are available by the FDA-approved therapies.

So, I’m really a huge advocate for clinical trials. I think that’s how we’ll continue to improve the treatment options for our patients with CLL.

CLL Treatment Advances: What Do You Need to Know?

CLL Treatment Advances: What Do You Need to Know? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

Dr. Matthew Davids reviews promising chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) research and shares online resources for patients to stay informed as treatments develop.

Dr. Matthew Davids is the Associate Director of the CLL Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. More about this expert.

See More From The Path to CLL Empowerment

Related Resources

Fact or Fiction? CLL Treatment & Side Effects

CLL Genetic Tests: How Do Results Impact Treatment and Care?

Essential Lab Tests for CLL Patients


Transcript:

Dr. Matthew Davids

So, this remains a very exciting time for CLL research. The last several years have witnessed the development of a number of these novel agent-based approaches, these oral drugs that target the different pathways inside the CLL cell that the cell survives with.

And so, we’ve really kind of reached the end of the beginning, as I call it, because the first goal, of course, was developing each one of these novel agent drugs on its own. We had to show first that they were safe and figure out what the dose was for patients, and then figure out that they’re effective on their own. And we’ve kind of checked those boxes at this point and reached a point where we have now several different novel agents that are FDA approved already for CLL patients.

And so, I think the big research challenge now going forward is kind of twofold. One is identifying the best combinations of these drugs to put together. And No. 2, identifying which patients will benefit most from which specific combinations.

And so, there’s a number of different clinical trials going on right now looking at these questions.

And just kind of highlighting some of them, one of them is the study of venetoclax with obinutuzumab that I mentioned before. We just had a pretty early readout from this study. But I think it’s gonna be very important to see how patients do over time after they finish the one year of therapy, and both for this study as well as another study called MURANO, which looked at the patients who had already had prior chemotherapy-based regimens and then received venetoclax, in this case with rituximab.

In both cases, when there’s time-limited therapy, I think a key research question is gonna be, when those patients do have progression of the CLL – hopefully years later – do they respond again to that same treatment? Can you use venetoclax again? And do the patients respond nicely? And if they do, then that could be a very nice intermittent treatment strategy to allow patients to be off therapy for a period of time, and then only to receive additional treatment when they need it.

I think another important and exciting area is the combination approaches. And I’ve talked about both ibrutinib and venetoclax as probably two of our most promising new drugs. And so, there are now a number of different studies exploring the combination of ibrutinib plus venetoclax given at the same time. And some of the initial data that’s been published looks very promising. This is a very well tolerated and highly effective combination in the initial studies. It’s all oral, which is nice. So, it’s just pills without the need for any infusions. And again, it’s designed to, hopefully, be a time-limited regimen, and patients hopefully will have a nice durable response after an initial treatment with these two drugs.

There are certainly a number of other drugs that are very promising as well. There’s a whole class that we haven’t talked about yet called PI3 kinase inhibitor drugs. We have two such drugs currently approved now for CLL patients, idelalisib and duvelisib. These drugs also are very effective for treating CLL but tend to have more side effects when they’re given as the first therapy. So, most patients will start with a different therapy. But then the PI3 kinase drugs can be a great option for patients who are in the relapse setting after they’ve had prior treatments.

And there’s another one in development called umbralisib, which also looks very promising and seems to perhaps be even the safest of these PI3 kinase inhibitor drugs. And that’s not yet FDA approved. But we anticipate it’s likely gonna get an approval relatively soon.

And so, combining these new PI3 kinase drugs also with venetoclax is an area of research interest, and a number of other combinations. As you can imagine, the longer the list grows of drugs, the more different combinations we can explore. And we’re trying to use the science from the laboratory to try to determine ahead of time what we think are the most promising strategies because we can’t do clinical trials of every single combination. But those are some of the sort of novel agent studies that I’m excited about right now.

I think the other area that could prove to be very helpful for our CLL patients is CAR T-cell therapy, which stands for chimeric antigen receptor T-cells. CAR T-cell therapy is a way to harness the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.

So, to do this, we would take cells out from a patient. And these are T lymphocyte cells. So, not the CLL cells, but a normal immune cell called a T lymphocyte. And then the cells get educated outside the body to recognize CLL cells more effectively. And they’re grown up and expanded and then reinfused into a patient, where they can go around and kill CLL cells. This can be a very effective treatment and can lead to complete remissions with durability.

And this approach is now in clinical trials. There are some risks to CAR T-cell based therapy. Something called cytokine release syndrome, where patients can get very sick, almost like they have a severe infection, but they don’t have an infection. There’s some neurologic risks to this as well that can be quite scary if they happen but in almost all cases are reversible. So, I think that this is an interesting area of research right now. It’s certainly not yet approved by the FDA for CLL. But we hope that, over time, as the CAR T-cell therapy becomes more effective and has fewer side effects, that eventually it will become a therapy option for patients who have had prior treatments for their CLL.

So, I think despite the fact that we’ve made a lot of advances in the last few years, we still have a lot of work to do in the research area to try to improve our treatments even further for our CLL patients.

So, in terms of how patients can stay informed about all these developments, it frankly is quite challenging, even for us in the field, to keep up with all of this. But there are some resources that can help. The first thing I would say is that the research tends to come along in fits and spurts, and one of the fits is generally the big research meetings where we all gather together to present our new data.

And probably the biggest highlight of the year is the ASH meeting, American Society of Hematology, which is usually in early December. That’s a good time to start looking on the internet for news about CLL, latest treatments, those sorts of things. Often, it’s kind of early December where we first hear about these breaking stories.

Another meeting that’s become big over the last few years is the European Hematology Association, which usually takes place in mid-June. And that’s, again, another time when we often see new data coming about. And one area where I would say this could be very helpful – or one website that I think is helpful – is the CLL Society website. This is led by Brian Koffman, who himself is a CLL patient.

And he kind of collates a lot of the information from these meetings and puts them in one place on his website. He’ll often interview CLL specialists to get their opinion about some of the newest developments. And so, I think Brian’s webpage, CLLSociety.org, can really be a great resource for getting up to date on the latest data.

There certainly are other websites out there now as well which are helpful. For example, another one that I’m working with closely is called VJHemOnc. And VJHemOnc comes to these big meetings, again, interviews a lot of the experts on their takes on the new data.

And I find that this platform in particular, the video-based platform, can be very engaging. It really forces us, as the investigators, to kind of hone down on what the most important key points are and give little snippets about that. And I would think that would be easier for our patients, in many cases, to digest, compared to some of the original papers themselves, which can be quite dense.

So, those would be my major resources that I’d recommend for CLL patients who are looking for additional information on the latest research.

CLL Treatment Decisions: What Path is Best for YOU?

CLL Treatment Decisions: What Path is Best for YOU? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 Dr. Matthew Davids discusses factors that can impact a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patient’s treatment course, including genetic testing results, age and co-existing conditions. Want to Learn More? Download the Find Your Voice Resource Guide here.

Dr. Matthew Davids is the Associate Director of the CLL Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. More about this expert.

See More From The Pro-Active CLL Patient Toolkit

Related Resources

 

Fact or Fiction? CLL Treatment & Side Effects

 

CLL Genetic Tests: How Do Results Impact Treatment and Care?

 

Essential Lab Tests for CLL Patients


Subscribe to stay up-to-date in the latest information in CLL treatment

* indicates required





Transcript:

Dr. Matthew Davids

So, there are a number of different factors that go into the decision of which of these regimens to choose for the initial therapy of CLL. One of them is certainly the age and fitness level of the patient and what other medical issues they have. So, as patients get above the age 65, they typically may have other medical issues and may not tolerate more aggressive chemoimmunotherapy-based regimens like FCR. But they could certainly tolerate the novel agent regimens like ibrutinib or venetoclax plus obinutuzumab.

Another consideration that comes into play is the biology of the CLL cells themselves. Some patients with CLL have a higher risk form of the disease. We call this either deletion 17p or TP53 mutation. And those patients typically do not benefit as much from chemoimmunotherapy.

So, even younger patients there, we think about a novel agent-based approach. And we have, again, the longest-term data on ibrutinib for that population, although venetoclax plus obinutuzumab is also a consideration.

And then as we think about debating between these different options, we also think about the specific other medical issues that a patient may have. So, ibrutinib does have some risks in terms of atrial fibrillation, which is an abnormal heart rhythm. It can cause patients to be a bit more prone to bleeding or bruising. And so, for patients who have these existing risks, if they have heart disease already, or if they’ve had issues with bleeding recently, ibrutinib may not be the best option, and venetoclax plus obinutuzumab would be appealing for a patient like that.

Now, with venetoclax and obinutuzumab, it can be such a potent regimen that it can break the tumor cells open too quickly. This is something we call tumor lysis syndrome. It’s not something we’ve seen commonly with this regimen. But we do watch patients very closely when they’re first dosing.And so, for example, patients who have poor kidney function might be at a higher risk for this side effect. And those might be patients, again, where we think about ibrutinib as a very good option, since it’s very well tolerated even by patients who have issues with their kidneys.

So, those are some of the factors that go into it. Certainly, patient preference makes a big difference. Some patients don’t mind the idea of going on a pill, and they like the idea that it’ll control their disease in the long term. And so there, a therapy like ibrutinib may make a lot of sense. Other patients may find that they prefer what we call a time-limited strategy. And using the venetoclax plus obinutuzumab makes a lot of sense there because it’s a one-year regimen, and they can stop. But we don’t know yet the durability of those effects. So, those are some of the factors that go into making this important decision as to what to receive for a first therapy.

I think patients have an increasingly large role in making treatment decisions about what they would like to receive, especially for their first therapy for CLL. It used to be that we had very limited treatment options for CLL, and really the only choice was chemotherapy. And so, that was a pretty easy choice if you had no other options.

So now, as I’ve highlighted, we have multiple different choices. We have chemotherapy-based approaches. We have novel agent approaches, both continuous and time limited. And so, I think it’s helpful for patients to educate themselves about the pros and cons of these different options, to get input from a CLL specialist, if possible, and certainly from their oncologist as well as family members and friends, particularly if they have had friends who’ve gone through this. Getting their advice can be helpful.

And reaching out to online supports as well can be a useful thing in terms of educating oneself. And at the end of the day, the patient has to make the decision as to what they think is best for them.

And it might be a different decision for each individual patient. But the good news for patients, even though it can be challenging to make this decision, all of these options are good ones. And so, there isn’t really a wrong decision here. But there may be some that are better suited for individual patients based on their own preferences.