Around 85% of people with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) live for 5 or more years following diagnosis. Although doctors cannot often cure the disease, a person can live with this form of leukemia for many years.

CLL accounts for around one-quarter of new leukemia cases. It is rare for treatment to cure CLL, but it can successfully manage the condition.

This article focuses on survival rates for CLL and the factors that can influence a person’s life expectancy. We also discuss how to achieve a good quality of life with CLL.

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Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the bone marrow and blood. Lymphocytic leukemia begins in the white blood cells (WBC), known as lymphocytes. These cells originate in the bone marrow.

When a person has lymphocytic leukemia, white blood cells become leukemia cells, which can spread into the blood and other parts of the body.

occurs when bone marrow abnormally produces too many lymphocytes. These abnormal lymphocytes do not function as they should, impairing the body’s ability to fight infection.

Furthermore, the overproduction of these cells means they may begin to build up in bone marrow, impeding the production of normal WBCs, and the proper working of red blood cells and platelets.

Older adults are more likely to have CLL than others, with 70 years being the average age of diagnosis. Those under the age of 40 are unlikely to experience this type of cancer.

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Symptoms

CLL does not usually have any symptoms early in its course, and someone may only discover they have it when they have a routine blood test. If a person does have symptoms, they may include the following:

  • swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck, under the arms, or in the groin
  • weight loss without an obvious cause
  • extreme tiredness
  • fever or high temperature, often due to an infection

Types of CLL

There are two types of CLL. The cells for each form are slightly different, but doctors can only tell them apart by testing them in a laboratory.

One type of CLL progresses very slowly, and a person may not need treatment for some time.

The second type progresses more quickly and is typically to be more severe. This type of CLL contains certain growth proteins that accelerate disease progression.

Doctors can only very rarely cure CLL. This means that a person must live with the disease and is likely to need ongoing treatment. Often, people do not require treatment for a while.

Survival rates can give a person more information about the outlook for their condition and help them plan treatment and care. However, survival rates are only ever an estimate.

Survival rates for leukemia have improved significantly over the past 40 years. In the United States, the current 5-year survival rate for CLL is 87%.

Measuring survival rates

An 87% 5-year survival rate means that around 87 out of every 100 people with CLL will be alive 5 years after diagnosis.

Researchers examine information about a group of people with a recent CLL diagnosis to find survival rates. After 5 years, they look at data on the same group of people. The survival rate is the percentage of people in that group who still live with the disease 5 years on.

Someone may live significantly longer than 5 years after a diagnosis of CLL. Researchers base survival rates on information from people diagnosed with CLL 5 years before. Therefore, if better treatments have become available in the following 5 years, people who have had a recent diagnosis may find the survival rates have improved.

The stage of leukemia is an important factor in life expectancy. However, other factors also have an impact.

Stages of leukemia

Doctors talk about stages to indicate how far cancer has progressed in a person’s body. However, as leukemia affects the blood, doctors cannot stage it in this way.

There are two systems for staging leukemia: the Rai system and the Binet system. In the U.S., doctors use the Rai system more commonly.

In the Rai system, a person will have blood tests to check for cancer cells and determine how many white blood cells are in the blood and bone marrow.

Alongside a physical exam, this information can give one of five stages for CLL:

Rai system stageSymptoms
Stage 0an increase in WBC levels
Stage 1an increase in WBC levels and enlargement of lymph nodes
Stage 2an increase in WBC and enlargement of lymph nodes, spleen, or liver
Stage 3an increase in WBC levels, low number of red blood cells, enlargement of lymph node, spleen, or liver
Stage 4an increase in WBC levels, low number of red blood cells and platelets, enlargement of lymph nodes, spleen, or liver

A higher stage number means that CLL is impacting more of the body. A higher stage will often shorten a person’s life expectancy.

Other factors

Other factors that can affect survival rates include:

  • whether CLL has come back or improved with treatment
  • how cancer cells have spread in the bone marrow
  • a person’s general health

Treatment can help people manage CLL symptoms and improve their overall outlook. Treatment focuses on stopping or slowing down the spread of CLL. If the condition is at an early stage, it may not need treatment.

Treatment options for CLL include:

After treatment, a person is likely to have periods when they have few or no symptoms of CLL. This is often known as remission. Currently, medical professionals do not know if a person can reduce their risk of CLL returning.

Learn more about breakthroughs in CLL treatment.

Although there is no cure for CLL, ongoing treatment can help a person live with the condition for a long time. There are several ways that someone who has CLL can support their health and well-being.

Follow-up care

Attending all medical appointments is essential to managing any medication and treatment side effects. When a doctor examines an individual at regular appointments, they have the chance to check for signs that CLL may be returning and treat it quickly.

Lifestyle changes

Staying as healthy as possible can help with general health and well-being. People with CLL may benefit from gentle exercise and following a healthy, balanced diet. However, no research confirms a direct link between exercise, diet, and CLL management.

Support

Many people find living with a lifelong condition challenging. Getting emotional support and expressing feelings can help. This may be from friends, family, or community groups. In the U.S., the American Cancer Society offers information on local support groups and information services.

Having correct information can give a person more control and understanding. Finding out as much as possible about CLL and consulting with a doctor on how to lead a healthy lifestyle can help with decisions about treatment and care.

Doctors can very rarely cure CLL. However, survival rates for this cancer are good, particularly with early diagnosis and treatment. People can live with CLL for many years after diagnosis, and some can live for years without the need for treatment.

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