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Ask The Doctor: Blood Cancer Affecting Those Over 60

Ask The Doctor: Blood Cancer Affecting Those Over 60

Q: I recently learned of a blood cancer that mainly affects people over 60. How do I know if I'm at risk and what can I do about it?

A: You're talking about chronic lymphocytic leukemia or CLL. It's most common in people between the ages of 65 and 74. CLL is a cancer of the blood that affects a group of white blood cells called lymphocytes, which help your body fight infection. It is sometimes called small lymphocytic lymphoma (SLL) but is the same disease.

CLL causes fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, anemia, weight loss and night sweats. It can also increase your risk for infection as well as your risk for other cancers, especially squamous cell skin cancer.

CLL is usually discovered during other screening tests. For example, a mammogram might detect swollen lymph nodes, or blood work will show an elevated lymphocyte count.

Most patients do not require extensive therapy early in the disease, but as CLL progresses it can threaten the bone marrow and cause infections. That's when treatment with chemotherapy and antibody therapy is needed. Some new treatment options that we're very excited about are Venetoclax and Ibrutinib. Both are oral small molecular inhibitors of cell function. They're clinically shown to greatly improve survival rates in CLL sufferers with high-risk disease and have fewer side effects.

Unfortunately, you can't prevent CLL. It appears to occur over time as a result of environmental factors and spontaneous genetic mutation. However, you can help ensure an early diagnosis for the best possible outcome by visiting your primary care physician every year and keeping up with your routine health screenings. Should you have lymph node swelling or night sweats without cause, get evaluated by your primary care physician right away.