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Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia

What Is Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia?

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a cancer that affects a type of white blood cell called a "lymphocyte."

Lymphocytes help your body fight infection. They're made in the soft center of your bones, called the marrow. If you have CLL, your body makes an abnormally high number of lymphocytes that aren't working right.

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More adults get CLL than any other type of leukemia. It usually grows slowly, so you may not have symptoms for years.

Some people never need treatment, but if you do, it can slow the disease and ease symptoms. People who get medical care live longer today, because doctors are diagnosing CLL earlier.

It's natural to have worries and questions about any serious condition. You don't have to face things alone. Tell your friends and family about any concerns you have. Let them know how they can help. And talk to your doctor about how to join a support group. It can help to speak to people who understand what you're going through.

Causes

In most cases, doctors don't know what causes CLL. You're more likely to get it if:

  • You have a parent, sibling, or child who has CLL.
  • You're middle-aged or older.
  • You're a white man.
  • You have relatives who are either Eastern European or Russian Jews.

If you were exposed to Agent Orange, an herbicide widely used during the Vietnam War, your chances of getting CLL may also be higher.

Symptoms

You may have no symptoms for a while. Over time, you may have:

  • Swollen lymph nodes in your neck, armpits, stomach, or groin. Lymph nodes are pea-sized glands in these and other areas of your body.
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain or fullness in your stomach, which may be because the disease has made your spleen bigger
  • Fatigue
  • Night sweats
  • Fever and infections
  • Loss of appetite and weight

Getting a Diagnosis

If you have one or more swollen lymph nodes, your doctor may ask:

  • Have you had any recent infections?
  • Have you had a recent injury?
  • Do you have an immune system disease?
  • Have you had fever?
  • Are you short of breath?
  • Have you lost weight without trying to?
  • What medications do you take?
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