Types of Treatment for CLL

Treatment for cancer is usually described as either local or systemic. Local treatments remove, destroy, or control the cancer cells in one certain area. When directed at one part of the body, radiation therapy is an example of local treatment. Systemic treatments are used to destroy or control cancer cells throughout the entire body. When taken by mouth or injection, chemotherapy is an example of systemic treatment. In most cases, treatment for leukemia is systemic as the cancer cells are located throughout your body in the bloodstream.

You may have just one type of treatment or a combination. Different types of treatment have different goals. Here are some of the types of treatment and their goals for adults who have chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). 

Watchful Waiting

Also called observation, this is a period when your doctor monitors your leukemia closely until you have symptoms or the disease is clearly progressing before treating you. Studies have shown that people with limited disease who aren't having any symptoms don't benefit, or have a longer survival, from early treatment. In fact, early treatment can cause more symptoms than no treatment at all. During this time, your doctor can treat any problems caused by the disease, such as infection.

Chemotherapy

This is the main way to treat CLL. Its goal is to stop the growth of cancer cells, putting your disease into remission and keeping it there. During each phase of treatment, you may be treated with just one drug. Or you may receive at least two drugs at a time, which is called combination chemotherapy. You receive drugs by injection or in pill form. Chemotherapy may also be combined with targeted therapy or with a stem cell transplant, which is used to restore cells lost during high-dose treatment.

Targeted Therapy

These are proteins made in a laboratory that bind only to the tumor cells and lead to their death. One example is monoclonal antibodies.

Stem Cell Transplant With High-Dose Chemotherapy

If the normal doses of chemotherapy don't work, your doctor may need to give you very high doses of chemotherapy. These high doses can damage the stem cells in your bone marrow. Blood stem cells are the "starter" cells for new blood cells. So sometimes before chemotherapy, your doctor removes some of your stem cells and freezes them, then returns them to you after treatment to restore your body's lost blood cells. Or you may receive stem cells from a donor. This is called bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cell transplant.

Radiation Therapy

This type of therapy uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation may be used right before a stem cell transplant or, in rare cases, to shrink a tumor.

Surgery

A splenectomy is a surgery to remove your spleen. This may be done to improve blood cell counts or to reduce pressure on other organs caused by a swollen spleen.


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