Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia

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What is chronic lymphocytic leukemia?
The most common form of adult leukemia, chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a form of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. Bone marrow is the spongy tissue found inside bones, where blood cells are made. The term chronic, in reference to this type of leukemia, means that it generally develops at a slower rate than other types of leukemia. Lymphocytic refers to the cells lymphocytes that are affected by the cancer. Lymphocytes help the body to fight infection.

Each year approximately 15,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with CLL. Although chronic lymphocytic leukemia occur at any age, it typically affects older adults. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia is rarely diagnosed in children.

What are the symptoms of chronic lymphocytic leukemia?

Often, many people with chronic lymphocytic leukemia do not display symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they may include fatigue, enlarged lymph nodes, liver and spleen, fever, night sweats, weight loss, bone pain, and frequent infections or the lungs, skin, kidney or other areas.

How is chronic lymphocytic leukemia diagnosed?
Doctors may use a variety of blood tests to diagnose CLL. The blood tests used are designed to count the number of cells in a blood sample, determine the type of lymphocytes involved, and analyze lymphocytes for genetic abnormalities. In addition, physicians may utilize additional tests, including bone marrow biopsy and aspiration and computerized tomography (CT) scans.

What causes chronic lymphocytic leukemia?
It has not yet been determined what causes chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Doctors do know that something happens in the body that causes a genetic mutation in the DNA of cells that produce blood. The result of this mutation is that blood cells produce abnormal, ineffective lymphocytes. Lymphocytes serve an important function in the body; they are a type of white blood cell that works to fight infection.

Instead of dying, like other cells would do, abnormal lymphocytes will continue to live. They build up in blood and certain organs. The buildup of lymphocytes in the body causes complications and may eventually crowd out healthy cells.

Factors that may increase your risk of developing chronic lymphocytic leukemia include age (most people diagnosed with CLL are over 50), your sex (males are more likely to be diagnosed with CLL), your race (Caucasians are more likely to develop CLL than other races), your family history, and exposure to certain chemicals.

While doctors do not know for sure what causes chronic lymphocytic leukemia, there have been noted links between long-term exposure to benzene (a colorless or light colored, sweet smelling chemical that is naturally occurring, as well as used in manufacturing processes) and cancer. Benzene is a recognized carcinogen that has been linked to abnormalities in the blood and bone marrow.

What are treatments for chronic lymphocytic leukemia?
Treatment in the early stages of CLL may not be required. Typically, people with early-stage chronic lymphocytic leukemia do not receive treatment. As CLL becomes more advanced, treatments may include chemotherapy, drug therapy, bone marrow stem cell transplants, or participation in clinical trials.

I think that my leukemia was the result of benzene. What is the next step?
Benzene is a chemical that occurs naturally. It is found in volcanoes and forest fires, as well as crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke. Benzene is also used in the manufacture of certain items such as plastics, resins, drugs, detergents, rubbers, and pesticides.

People risk long-term exposure to benzene if they work with products that are made with benzene or work in industries that use or make benzene. If you have been diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and have also had extensive exposure to benzene, you may wish to seek the advice of a legal professional.

An attorney familiar with benzene and the detrimental effects it can have on people's health will be able to guide you through the legal process and help you determine if you have grounds to pursue a legal claim.

Being diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia can be overwhelming and frightening. Look to the support of family and friends, educate yourself about the disease and what you can do to fight it, and seek legal counsel if necessary. Eventually you will find ways to cope with the disease.