Skip to main content
Treatment

Treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) largely depends how far developed it is when it's diagnosed.

You may just need to be monitored at first if it's caught early on. Chemotherapy is the main treatment if it's more advanced.

Treatment can often help keep CLL under control for many years.

It may go away after treatment initially (known as remission), but will usually come back (relapse) a few months or years later and may need to be treated again.

Stages of CLL

Doctors use "stages" to describe how far CLL has developed and help them determine when it needs to be treated.

There are 3 main stages of CLL:

Stage B and C CLL are usually treated straight away. Stage A generally only needs to be treated if it's getting worse quickly or starting to cause symptoms.

Monitoring early-stage CLL

Treatment may not be needed if you do not have any symptoms when you're diagnosed with CLL.

This is because:

In these cases, you'll normally just need regular visits to your doctor and blood tests to monitor the condition.

Treatment with chemotherapy will usually only be recommended if you develop symptoms or tests show that the condition is getting worse.

Chemotherapy for more advanced CLL

Many people with CLL will eventually need to have chemotherapy. This involves taking medication to keep the cancer under control.

There are a number of different medicines for CLL, but most people will take 3 main medications in treatment cycles lasting 28 days.

These medicines are:

Fludarabine and cyclophosphamide can usually be taken at home. Rituximab is given in hospital, and sometimes you may need to stay in hospital overnight.

A number of different medicines can also be tried if you cannot have these medicines, you have tried them but they did not work, or your CLL has come back after treatment.

These include bendamustine, chlorambucil, ibrutinib, idelalisib, obinutuzumab, ofatumumab and prednisolone (a steroid medication).

Side effects of treatment

The medicines used to treat CLL can cause some significant side effects, including:

Most side effects will pass once treatment stops. Let your care team know if you experience any side effects, as there are some treatments that can help.

Find out more about the side effects of chemotherapy

Stem cell or bone marrow transplants

Stem cell or bone marrow transplants are sometimes used to try to get rid of CLL completely, or control it for longer periods.

Stem cells are cells produced by the spongy material found in the centre of some bones (bone marrow) and can turn into different types of blood cells, including white blood cells.

A stem cell transplant involves:

This is the only potential cure for CLL, but it's not done very often as it's an intensive treatment and many people with CLL are older and not well enough for the benefits to outweigh the risks.

The initial treatment with chemotherapy and radiotherapy can place a significant strain on your body and cause troublesome side effects.

There's also a risk of serious problems after the transplant, such as graft versus host disease. This is where the transplanted cells attack the other cells in your body.

Read more about what happens during a stem cell transplant and the risks of a stem cell transplant.

Other treatments for CLL

There are also a number of other treatments that are sometimes used to help treat some of the problems caused by CLL, particularly if you cannot have chemotherapy or it does not work.

These include:

You may also need additional treatment for any complications of CLL that develop.

Deciding against treatment

As many of the treatments for CLL can have unpleasant side effects that may affect your quality of life, you may decide against having a particular type of treatment.

This is entirely your decision and your treatment team will respect any decision you make.

You will not be rushed into deciding about your treatment, and you can talk to your doctor, partner, family and friends before making a decision.

Pain relief and nursing care will still be available as and when you need it.

Clinical trials for CLL

Several clinical trials are currently being conducted in the UK to try to find the best way of treating CLL.

These are studies that use new and experimental techniques to see how well they work in treating, and possibly curing, the condition.

If you're interested in taking part in a clinical trial, your care team can tell you if there are any running in your area, and explain the benefits and risks involved.

Find out more about clinical trials or search the UK Clinical Trials Gateway website for details of clinical trials for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia currently in progress across the UK.