Here is a list of some hopefully useful and occasionally iconoclastic things that I have concluded about chronic lymphocytic leukemia. These are my impressions; your mileage may vary.
- WBC is overemphasized by patients and local doctors. A CBC is the easiest way to measure the amount of CLL in the blood, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Unless your absolute lymphocyte count (ALC) doubles in less than six months, and over the course of at least three tests, the number is not especially relevant. A CBC doesn’t measure disease progression in the lymph nodes, spleen, or marrow. CLL is heterogeneous, meaning it doesn’t follow the same rules in everyone: One patient can have a low lymphocyte count and huge nodes or incipient marrow failure, while another can have a high count and not much else going on. Hemoglobin and platelet counts are as useful as the lymphocyte count when trying to gauge disease progression and/or complications. Relying solely on the generic white blood count -- or, more appropriately, the ALC -- is a mistake. Yet this mistake is made all the time, and the planet is apparently rife with doctors who think that when your WBC or ALC reaches a magic number -- often 100,000 -- it is time to treat. There is a mantra to remember: Treat the patient, not the numbers.
- You’re not as healthy as you look. It is easy to assume at diagnosis, when most of us feel healthy, that not much will change. But immunity is degraded in patients with progressing CLL. When you have your first post-diagnosis cold and your lymph nodes swell, you’ll have tangible evidence that something is wrong. As your disease progresses, immunoglobulins will drop and so will resistance to infection. CLL cells can compromise the effectiveness of T cells, and this can lead to squamous cell skin cancers as well as infections. Add the side effects of heavy-duty treatment to this equation and your body can be left at the mercy of almost every bug out there. CLL doesn’t kill patients directly; infections as a result of reduced immunity do, the most common one being pneumonia. Prudent measures -- washing your hands frequently, avoiding sick people, wearing a hat and sunscreen -- should not be scoffed at. You have to help yourself stay well; what you once took for granted is now something you have to work at. So get in touch with your inner Adrian Monk (well, at least a little). You don’t have to live in a bubble -- but avoid unnecessary risks.
- Chemotherapy costs you. And I don’t mean financially, though it may do that, too. Chemo won’t cure you. It will knock the disease back -- perhaps a little, perhaps a lot. But it comes with a price: Risking immune suppression that leaves you as fit as an AIDS patient is bad enough; developing disease resistance to drugs and giving rise to aggressive, 17p-deleted CLL clones are tragic consequences. Whether your hair falls out or not should be the least of your worries. On some level, using chemo is robbing Peter to pay Paul. That is why it should not be used until there really is no other alternative. This is especially true of fludarabine, which is the bulwark of CLL therapy in the US, and which has been found to be the source of more and more nasty problems as time has gone on. . . . Now don’t get me wrong: Chemo can add years to our lives. It is better than the alternative. When the disease gets to a certain point, we have no choice. The more the disease screws up the body, the greater the risk we need to take to control it. But chemo is not a panacea. It is a necessary evil -- and I use that phrase carefully and intentionally.
- 4 + 1 = 5 and so does 3 + 2. A new paper points out the importance of second-line therapy in overall survival in CLL. Why are patients who start with chlorambucil (CB) living as long or longer than those starting with fludarabine? CB users respond better the second time they are treated because they develop less disease resistance as a result of their first treatment. So the math is simple: Get a big bang at the start and a small bang the second time = 5. A less stellar response the first time and a comparatively larger one the second also = 5, maybe even 6. The question is, is there a way to stagger treatments so that you reach 7 or more? This is what I’m trying to do with single-agent Rituxan. Wish me luck.
- Cluelessness is the rule rather than the exception. In a disease where the cause has not been found, and about which the experts disagree (sometimes vehemently), and in which there are no long-term survival studies of the most popular therapies, and which is heterogeneous and quirky to boot, it’s all a guessing game. If there was one obvious approach when watch and wait ends, one consensus choice for treatment, then we’d all be doing it. But there’s not. For Type A personalities who like everything logical and organized, coping with CLL is especially nightmarish. There is an incredible amount of guessing involved, and that starts at the top. Four big-name doctors have now seen my charts; each one had a different suggestion as to what I should do. My experience is not uncommon. . . . Still, there are some tools you can use so that your guesses are educated: It is becoming increasingly clear that knowing your IgVH mutational status, FISH, and CD 38 test results can offer a pretty good idea of what you’re dealing with. (Forget ZAP-70 as done by commercial labs -- until they work out the kinks, the test isn't worth much unless it is conducted at a major research institution.) So have your tests done, consult the best white-coated prognosticators you can find, filter the information through your own intuition, and spin the Wheel of Fortune.
- Your hem/onc is a prognostic factor. Tests are not the only prognostic factors. The quality of your local doctor is a big one. A good hem/onc, especially one that will work with a CLL expert, may mean a longer life for you. A bad one can take years off your life by prescribing treatment too soon, and by suggesting a treatment that may be a bad choice. Had I followed my first hem/onc’s advice, I would probably be fludarabine-refractory by now, with little to show for it. Dodging well-intentioned bullets from local docs can become a full-time job. But this is one prognostic factor that you can control, thankfully.
- There is one kind of CLL to avoid like the plague and any of us can get it. I am talking about CLL in which the clone with the 17p (aka p53) deletion predominates. It is aggressive, resistant to most treatments, and will require a transplant if you are to survive. Dithering around with softball therapies like single-agent Rituxan will not be of much help (I know this is tempting and I support this approach in many cases, but if I developed 17p-deleted CLL I would accept the inevitability of a transplant and bite the bullet, chemo-wise, to give it the best chance of success). Some patients, usually IgVH unmutated ones, will develop this deletion through no fault of their own. But many will develop it as a result of chemotherapy that kills off lesser CLL clones and leaves the 17p-deleted with your body to itself. These therapies include fludarabine and the alkalytors (chlorambucil, cyclophosphamide). There is no guarantee that a given course of one of these drugs will cause this to happen, but you cannot use them without risking it. Chancing 17p raises the bar enormously when it comes to deciding on treatment, as far as I am concerned, and I think this risk is underemphasized by doctors and in patient considerations that I see on the internet.
- Santa moves slowly. There are lots of promising ideas for treating CLL. Until they are tried, tested, and approved, they are no more useful to you than unicorns. The treatment toolbox is the one in front of you today (unless you qualify for a clinical trial, and keep in mind that trials do not guarantee success.) New items may appear in the toolbox one day soon, especially those in Phase III trials that show good results and have fast-track status from the FDA. But theories won’t relieve your symptoms. If you can hold out, do it. But expect the wait to be longer than you want, or expect.
- CLL is not the world. Life goes on. Bunnies hop, the sun rises, flowers bloom. Pay attention to those things, and to those you love. They have their own journeys, their own needs, even their own health issues. You can feel better by focusing on others. Absorb your CLL experience into the larger context of your life, not the other way around.
- Statistics are general but you are an individual. There are always people who do better than the bell curve, and those who do worse. Some get lucky, others are unlucky, Some work with good doctors, educate themselves, and make some good guesses. Others follow bad advice, stick their heads in the sand, and hope for the best. Neither approach comes with a guarantee of success or failure, but it can’t hurt to stack the odds in your favor as best you can. On patient forums I see this question asked: “How long do I have to live?” Well, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy: “Ask not how long you have to live. Ask how you can help yourself to live longer.”
In the near future, I’ll provide a list of suggestions for how you may be able to do that.