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Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)/Small Lymphocytic Lymphoma (SLL)

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and small lymphocytic lymphoma (SLL) are the same disease. It develops when lymphocytes, a mature type of white blood cell, do not fully develop. These abnormal lymphocytes do not fight infection well and crowd out healthy blood cells.

  • CLL: The disease is most often called CLL when cancer cells are found mostly in the blood and bone marrow.
  • SLL: It is most often called SLL when cancer cells are found mainly in the lymph nodes.

Causes of CLL/SLL are not known. A possible risk factor is exposure to chemical herbicides, such as Agent Orange, used during the Vietnam War.

CLL/SLL is usually diagnosed around age 70. It is rare in younger adults and almost never seen in children. The five-year survival rate is about 82 percent.

CLL/SLL symptoms

Often, people with CLL/SLL do not have any symptoms because the disease develops slowly. Some known symptoms include the following:

  • Enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, armpits or groin
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Pain or a feeling of fullness below the ribs
  • Frequent fever or infections
  • Unexplained weight loss or reduced appetite

How can I get help for CLL/SLL?

Because you may not have any symptoms, your physician may detect your cancer through a routine blood test. When you come to Rush, specialists will perform a thorough exam, with one or more of the following tests:

  • Blood tests to check for abnormal blood cell and platelet counts
  • Review of previous bone marrow studies to establish a baseline for measuring your body’s response to treatment
  • Needle aspiration or biopsy (if necessary) for a new sample of bone marrow
  • Molecular test for certain markers in cancer cells that can be targeted with specific drugs or other therapies

Care for CLL/SLL at Rush

Treatment options for CLL/SLL depend on whether you have a slow- or fast-growing form of the disease. Experts at Rush may recommend one or more of the following treatments:

  • Observation with occasional tests to monitor your condition (for slow-growing CLL/SLL)
  • Chemotherapy using drugs that damage or kill abnormal lymphocytes
  • Targeted therapy using monoclonal antibodies and other new drugs to target specific molecules on cancer cells
  • Medications to prevent infections and increase low blood cell counts
  • Stem cell transplantation from a healthy donor to restore bone marrow after chemotherapy

Why choose Rush for CLL/SLL care?

  • Patients receive superior care for CLL/SLL from experienced specialists at Rush. The leukemia clinic, lymphoma clinic and bone marrow and stem cell tranplant clinic have accreditations and recognitions from leading health care organizations.
  • Research physicians at Rush conduct clinical trials to test the latest drugs and therapies for treating CLL/SLL. Eligible patients can participate and receive advanced treatments and expert care from renowned specialists.
  • Rush’s multidisciplinary team of specialists in cancer, blood, pathology, diagnostic radiology, radiation therapy and stem cell transplants meets weekly to discuss new patients. They focus on determining an accurate diagnosis, what factors may affect recovery, and the best course of treatment for each patient. 

Departments and programs that treat this condition