What is Watch and Wait with CLL or SLL?
Watch-and-wait strategies can be confusing for both cancer patients and their care partners. The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society defines this approach as “closely monitoring a patient’s condition without administering any treatment until symptoms appear or change.”
But how does this approach affect the day-to-day life of a cancer patient? In this live discussion held in May 2023, we explore everything you need to know about the watch-and-wait strategy, including red-flag symptoms, safe activities, and tips for maintaining good health.
In our live discussion, Dr. Kerry Rogers from The James Cancer Treatment and Research Center, shares strategies for the watch-and-wait approach for chronic lymphocytic leukemia and small lymphocytic lymphoma. The expert panel features CLL advocates Jeff Folloder and Michele Nadeem-Baker and CLL patient Catherine Ferguson. They discuss various CLL/SLL topics, from symptoms to look out for and matcha green tea to answering patient questions about active monitoring, seeking specialists, and mental health.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. This is not medical advice. Please consult with your healthcare provider for treatment decisions.
Introduction to panelists
Why do I Have to Delay Treatment?
- Introduction to panelists
- Why do I Have to Delay Treatment?
- Why is watch-and-wait used for CLL Treatment?
- Understanding the challenges of diagnosing and treating CLL/SLL
- Mental and emotional health effects
- Catherine's experience before front-line treatment
- How to determine symptom severity and potential causes
- Activities, supplements, and exercise
- When to start treatment for CLL/SLL
- Side effects of treatments
- Is it crucial to see a CLL specialist immediately after diagnosis, or can it wait?
Michele Nadeem-Baker: I am a CLL patient, but I’m also a medical journalist and a really passionate CLL patient advocate trying to help all of us understand better just what CLL is and SLL in everyday language.
So probably like the majority of you, I was pretty surprised when I was diagnosed with CLL and thrown into something called watch-and-wait, which made absolutely no sense to me. It was pretty illogical. The doctor walked in. I had no clue there was anything wrong with me and he said, “You have the C word, but it’s the best you can have.” Doesn’t that kill you when they say that? Nothing made sense to me. How anything with cancer could be the best. And then he told me that he’d see me in four months and then I’d be fine. So all of this was pretty illogical to me, having to grasp all of this at once and understand.
But during this time of watch-and-wait, what I did is I got a second opinion and then I started what you would call front-loading information. I was trying to find out the most credible places to go for information, but also the most current. And that’s something we have to watch out for with Dr. Google. So I learned Dr. Google is not necessarily the doctor, you want to listen to and also to go to find where we can find some credible answers. And so in that time, I also found great CLL specialists, the latest in treatment, and it’s good to stay on top of what those treatments are.
I made sure that I took a lot of stress out of my life. My job was a 24/7 job and when I tell you that, that’s not an exaggeration. I slept 2-4 hours a night — Dr. Rogers, can you believe this? — for years because that was my job. I thought, “I think I need to get a little healthier.” I upped my game on working out and on eating healthy and I started doing yoga and meditating and trying to do everything I could to be the healthiest I could be for when it was time to start treatment. And in treatment didn’t happen for some years.
Jeff Folloder: I am a passionate patient advocate. And there’s a reason for that. The reason is I am living an excellent life with CLL. And my goal, my mission is to make sure that others know it is possible to live a great life with CLL. A little bit about me. I love fast red cars, I love expensive whiskey, and I love sharing stories and learning about this ugly journey of cancer that I’m dealing with and helping people figure out better ways to deal with it.
Catherine Ferguson: My name is Catherine Ferguson.
I live just outside of Boston and am a retired college professor. I’m a vet tech and I work in surgery. And I’m also a CLL thriver — not only surviving but thriving.
Dr. Kerry Rogers: I just love doing this type of thing and I really enjoy talking to my patients in the clinic and I enjoy talking about CLL in general. I’m a hematologist, I’m a physician-scientist, and I’m an associate professor in the Division of Hematology at the Ohio State University. I see people with both CLL and hairy cell leukemia in my clinic and do research mainly in investigational therapeutics. And I enjoy talking about CLL with people, but I also really enjoy college football and was just reminded it’s only three and a half months or so until we have college football back.
Why is watch-and-wait used for CLL Treatment?
Dr. Kerry Rogers: The majority of people diagnosed with CLL won’t need treatment right away. And, in fact, with people getting routine blood work now so often, the most common way to be diagnosed is getting a blood test and then finding out you have CLL without any symptoms. It is very confusing for people when you’re told you have a cancer and most of the things you hear about all forms of cancer is that you have to treat it, catch it early, and be aggressive with treatment, and that’s not really the scheme in CLL.
The reason for that is that we know that treating it earlier doesn’t help people live any longer or any better. So way back when we used to use chemotherapy to treat CLL, there was more than one randomized study where they took people who were recently diagnosed with CLL that did not have any of the traditional reasons to treat it, like symptomatic lymph nodes or blood counts that were abnormal enough to need treatment. So they took people who were asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic with no issues that required treatment and randomized them to either be observed and then get treatment when they needed it or to get treatment right away with chemotherapy. And there was more than one study and this is, again, back when chemotherapy was the thing we used.
Does immediate treatment for CLL/SLL improve overall survival compared to the watch-and-wait approach?
Dr. Kerry Rogers: And, actually, there was no difference in overall survival, which is how long people were living between the two groups. People treated when they needed it or people treated immediately had the same survival so we know it doesn’t help you live longer. And, actually, it looked like there was a slight trend towards shorter survival in people treated immediately because chemotherapy is not overly good for people and they got chemotherapy they didn’t need yet.
The way I like to view it is CLL is not something that we can currently cure with conventional treatments. We expect people to live a very long and rich lifespan with it. And so given that, why expose someone to side effects from treatment earlier? Because the sooner you take it, the sooner you get side effects from treatment. And why expose he CLL cells earlier to agents they could become resistant to, shortening the amount of someone’s lifespan, where they might be expected to have their CLL controlled by targeted agents?
So if you think about it, there are a couple of reasons not to do early treatment because of side effects and the risk of resistance to the treatment. And we know it doesn’t help people live any longer in fact, it might help them live worse if they’re getting side effects. So that’s the rationale on the science side behind watch-and-wait, which I like to call observation.
Is there a percentage of patients that go immediately into treatment?
Dr. Kerry Rogers: That’s a good question. I do think that percentage is probably decreased over the years so I’m sure someone has looked at that as a straight percentage, but I’m not sure that really applies anymore. But it is really the vast majority of people that are in watch-and-wait, at least for some time. It’s a much, much less common thing to need treatment immediately.
Are there ongoing studies with newer drugs to determine if treating early improves survival?
Dr. Kerry Rogers: As a scientific question, they are repeating some of these studies with the newer drugs to see if this is still true, that it doesn’t improve survival for people, which is how long they live with their CLL, to treat early. Those studies are being done. The German CLL study group has one with ibrutinib as an early intervention. And then there’s one that’s occurring in the United States called EVOLVE that’s looking at venetoclax-obinutuzumab either immediately or delayed. We will get more information about that. Because people live so long, it will take over a decade or more to see if there’s a survival difference because people don’t die, which is great. I think that when you think about other types of cancers, like colon cancers or breast cancers, the reason to find them early is that you can cure them. And if you don’t find them and treat them earlier, people die of them.
When you’re looking at CLL, you’ve got a lot of people who, even though they have it, are unlikely to die of it — that’s not everybody, but a lot of people are unlikely to die of it — and we can’t cure it so you don’t get to do treatment and go back to whatever indefinitely, right? If you do treatment now, even with our newer drugs, these still have side effects.
What are the potential risks and drawbacks of treating CLL/SLL early with targeted treatment?
Dr. Kerry Rogers: Anyone that thinks they’re getting treatment with no side effects, you never get anything for free, right? Why expose someone to risks of high blood pressure, diarrhea? And then also we know that once you start exposing CLL cells to these targeted agents we use, there’s an amount of time that the disease will respond before the cells become resistant and their CLL comes back. If you start treatment 5 years before you had to, that’s 5 fewer years where someone’s CLL could be controlled by that drug so you might actually shorten someone’s lifespan by giving them a drug that you didn’t have to by either causing a severe side effect or causing their cancer cells to become resistant earlier.
Understanding the challenges of diagnosing and treating CLL/SLL
Dr. Kerry Rogers: And those schemes for screening, treat early — and I get asked this all the time, “But what if my cancer has spread? What if the CLL has spread? How will I know if it’s spread?” And I’m like, “Okay, this is really hard because it’s a blood cancer, right? So it goes everywhere the blood goes.” And they’re like, “Well, that’s everywhere.” And I was like, “I know,” and it’s so upsetting to think that. I can just see how upset people are by this idea. But for CLL, it’s actually okay. We expect it to be everywhere the blood can go and that doesn’t make it any less treatable or make our therapies any less effective.These conventional things that apply to solid tumors are not really the same as applied to these blood cancers and then there’s a huge difference between aggressive cancers that can be cured or cause symptoms immediately and some of these cancers.
And just for context, I have some patients that were diagnosed with CLL when I was in high school and have never needed treatment and it’s been over 20 years — actually over 25 now; I’m getting old.It’s hard to say that you can improve someone’s life by treating early and aggressively when the last two-plus decades have been them living their lives without anything hurting them from the CLL. So when you see that, then you think. it’s not a good idea to expose these people to things they don’t need. You can’t improve on feeling well, right?
Mental and emotional health effects
Jeff Folloder: The most debilitating part of CLL for me is the mental burden of this. We can be candid with each other. watch-and-wait is not a normal thing for anyone. And when you’re told you have cancer and you’re told you’re going to watch, you’re going to wait, you’re going to have to be vigilant, you’re going to have to go into observation mode, that becomes a mental burden. I will admit that I did not deal with that mental burden very well when I first went through watch-and-wait.
Michele Nadeem-Baker: Jeff had been through treatment. I’m like, “How did you do this? I didn’t have control over what my own body was doing and that is really difficult, especially for someone like myself who really likes to be in control of things. I think I’m doing everything I can. Is there anything more I can do? No, there really isn’t and it just doesn’t matter and that is so difficult.
And also my dad passed away from mesothelioma, a lung cancer. He was diagnosed and in two weeks, he died. So it’s just like, to me, that’s like, “You don’t treat? Oh my gosh, that’s what happens.”I got all worked up there from when I was going through it the first time because you really don’t know what it looks like. You don’t know what it’s like.
Catherine’s experience before front-line treatment
Catherine Ferguson: I dealt with it about the same as you guys initially. When I was diagnosed, I was at one of the top hospitals in Boston, but when they said they weren’t going to treat it, I was like, “Oh my God, I’m going to have to go to Dana-Farber.” So I went for a second opinion over to Dana-Farber and they told me pretty much the same thing.
My personality is I’m a go-getter. I want the plan. I want to get it done. I want to get it started and I want to get it ended. So for the first couple of weeks, it was probably all-consuming for me, honestly. I could have gone down the rabbit hole really quickly.
I look at my dogs and I’d think, “Am I going to outlive them or are they going to outlive me?” But pretty soon thereafter, I had an epiphany where one day, I thought,” I could go walk off the curb tomorrow and get hit by a car,” and then I spent my last days on this earth worrying about when I might die somewhere down the line.
For me, that set something off in my head that life is for living right now and none of us know what tomorrow brings. It’s not a guarantee for anybody. So for me, I try and just live my life. I’m basically an optimistic person in general, by nature. So for me, I try and just believe that] I do the things that I can do for myself and stuff like that. I take care of myself. I listen to the doctors. I get my screenings. I do all the things I’m supposed to do in watch-and-wait. And then I just continue to live my life. I have to say, the second time around, it’s been much better.
How did you cope with the emotional toll?
Catherine Ferguson: When I was first diagnosed, I was diagnosed with intermediate markers. I wasn’t high risk, I was intermediate on the genetic markers and so I knew I was going to likely need treatment. What the doctor couldn’t tell me is when. So I knew that sooner or later, I wasn’t going to be one of those people that was going to go forever without needing treatment.
And so around the 4-year mark, I started to get really anemic. I started getting really, really tired. I had a couple of nodes that were big, but that was it. Everything else — my platelets, my white blood count — was perfectly fine. We found out I was iron deficient so I did iron infusions. It helped initially, but when we rechecked it again two months later, it had dropped again.
Because I didn’t have any other symptoms other than I was anemic, we kind of assumed that it might be the CLL progressing at that point. I had a bone marrow biopsy done and it came back as Hodgkin’s lymphoma from a Richter’s transformation. So Richter’s transformation is when the CLL transforms into something much more aggressive. Usually, it’s not a Hodgkin’s, usually it’s something worse so I actually got the better of the two, if you want to see that. See, that’s the optimism.
I had to do a regular six months of chemo every other week. High-dose chemos. And for me, I’ve been in remission since I finished that chemo and that was five years ago. I have never had any more issues with the Hodgkins or the Richters.
What are some tips for guys dealing with watch-and-wait and how can they learn to talk to people about it?
Jeff Folloder: We’re at a point where I’m supposed to give some pro tips about how guys deal with watch-and-wait. And we’re going to go straight to a poll that Stephanie’s going to introduce in just a second. I’m going to give you a sliver of the pro tip because it’s part of dealing with this whole mental health aspect that we’re going to be focusing on a bit here.
Michele talked about it. She talked about being in control.] Guys, we all try to be type A and we try to always be in control. The answer is not always, “I’m fine.” The answer is not always, “I’m good.” You’re going to need to learn how to talk to people.
How do patients and care partners cope with watch-and-wait from an emotional and mental health standpoint?
Dr. Kerry Rogers: As you were saying that don’t just say, “Oh, I’m okay,” I have people’s partners all the time say, “Will you just go ahead and tell her what’s on your mind? You need to actually tell people what’s happening.” And I was like, “I’m here to listen to you about what’s happening.” I observe that quite a bit. We get so many people now diagnosed at a time when they have no symptoms — their blood tests are abnormal, they get diagnosed with CLL, they don’t need treatment, and they had no symptoms and say they felt perfectly fine and had no idea something was wrong until this happened —for this group of people, sometimes I think the hardest aspect of having CLL is knowing that they have it.
I see people where the worst part of it for them is not physical symptoms, but it’s living with knowing you have it. And I try to tell people, “You’re feeling well from this.” I’ve said, “Based on the disease features, I don’t expect this to be something that shortens your lifespan, even though you might need treatment at some point. Please don’t let knowing you have this ruin your life] Don’t let just knowing you have this fear in your life.”
We have great programs here at Ohio State at the James, like psychosocial oncology, which is mental health professionals that can help with this. I try to offer what I can, but this is something that I don’t have formal training in helping people cope with some of these aspects, which really can be much more impactful on their lives than the physical symptoms of CLL.
I think people knowing they have it can actually be much harder for them than any physical symptoms they’re experiencing. I can see sometimes people that have spouses or partners or caregivers or people in their lives that come to the clinic with them, it’s really helpful because sometimes, something, their friends, family, or loved ones are observing is something they choose to share during the visit and that helps me know that there’s something else that needs to be addressed.I think sometimes it can be hard for other people to know how to support their loved one that has CLL. I find that the majority of people help facilitate some of the communication in clinic and have been good.
Jeff’s experience with watch-and-wait: learning to communicate with healthcare team
Jeff Folloder: I want to share just a little bit about my experience with watch-and-wait I learned through going through all the questions and answers at the hospital that I chose that I wasn’t being candid with my healthcare team. I believe the military says I was exhibiting a lack of candor.
Well, the problem was I didn’t know how to answer their questions. I didn’t know what was important when they said, “So what’s going on? How are you dealing with things? Is there anything that we need to know about?” Things like night sweats. I associated it with my love of Thai food. You eat too much hot chili, you’re going to sweat at night, right? No. Going through all of this watch-and-wait was learning how to communicate with my healthcare team and not knowing what was going to be the tripwire for treatment meant that I was learning new things about communication.
I started treatment when my doctors discovered that my fatigue had become so debilitating that I couldn’t do the normal things I needed to do in my daily life. I couldn’t lift certain things. I couldn’t stay awake long enough. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t do that. That was the tripwire for, “Okay, watch-and-wait is now over. Now it’s time to move into treatment.”
Dr. Rogers, explain to us what you’re doing with all these questions and answers. What are you looking for? What is happening during this period? And what should the patients and their caregivers be looking out for?
How to determine symptom severity and potential causes
Dr. Kerry Rogers: There are a few things that we always look for. We always check people’s lymph nodes. But just because we found some lymph nodes, it’s okay. It doesn’t mean you need treatment. But if people notice a bunch of lymph nodes everywhere that’s bothering them and keep getting bigger, then that might be important that we should do something to improve that for them. And then we look at the blood counts, which people don’t usually see their blood counts between visits that often and so that’s something that’s really important.
But in terms of what people tell us, it’s always good to hear about how people are functioning. If they have things that are interfering with their professional, leisure, or preferred activities, if it’s fatigue, if it’s something else, we always ask about night sweats. And then if someone’s like, “Yeah, I’m going through menopause,” I’m like, “Right, so that’s cool.”
The difference between normal night sweats and abnormal night sweats
Dr. Kerry Rogers: There are people with night sweats where everyone in bed with them is wet. They’re wet, their wife is wet, and the dog is wet. They had to change all the sheets. That’s actually a problem. And it’s hard because people don’t know that that we think there’s a difference between, “Oh, yeah, my neck got sweaty at night,” because they got hot versus, “Everyone in the entire bed with me is soaked because I’m so sweaty.” Those are the things we try to figure out by asking questions when people like to come to see us. Finding out about night sweats is fine and we can help people determine what might be normal like you were saying, the Thai food versus not really normal, right?
The significance of reporting severe fatigue and sleep issues
Dr. Kerry Rogers: Fatigue is the hardest because there are so many things that can add to someone’s fatigue. Every once in a while, we get someone that has fatigue that’s really quite severe and it’s actually sleep apnea. So we get their sleep apnea treated and they’re like, “Oh, I feel like a million bucks.” And you’re like, “I’m glad we didn’t treat your CLL because of that,” because that’s not going to fix your sleep apnea, right?
Part of what we do when symptoms are reported is not like, “Oh, you have fatigue, you need treatment,” but have more questions about what’s going on, and what might be causing that. One patient I talked to said, “I have fatigue, but I haven’t slept.” She only slept 2 to 4 hours a night. People are tired when they’re busy and they have something going on. A lot of the stuff we look for is not only asking those questions but severity and follow-up questions about some of those symptoms.
What is the average watch-and-wait period for intermediate and high-risk CLL/SLL patients, and does it vary by mutation type?
Dr. Kerry Rogers: The answer is yes, there is. This has been done in more than one study where they’ve looked at the time from diagnosis to first treatment. It’s hard to pinpoint from these studies what will happen to any one person though. So these are studies that look at a group of people diagnosed with CLL and how long between the time they are diagnosed and treated. Then they look at different disease features — so high-risk features like deletion 17p in the CLL,ow-risk features like IgHV mutated status, and then they look at the median. You can think of the median as a little bit like the average. It’s not exactly the same thing, but the median number of times for the 100 people in that group to start treatment.
Dr. Kerry Rogers: For things like deletion 17p, the median in one study was around a year and a half between diagnosis and needing treatment. But within that group, some people needed treatment right away, some people didn’t need treatment for five years. There’s a staging system called Rai staging that can help predict the time to the first treatment. But you never know what’s going to happen for an individual person so I try not to get people too wrapped up in that because you don’t know how it’s going to turn out for them.
Activities, supplements, and exercise
What activities can you do during watch-and-wait?
Dr. Kerry Rogers: I’m going to go with all of them that are recommended for people. People ask me this all the time, “Can I do this? Can I do that? Can I do the other thing?” I’m like, “Yeah, do all of it.” And then they’re like, “Can I do something crazy that really nobody should be doing?” I’m like, “No, don’t do that.”
“Can I drink beer because I have CLL? I like drinking beer and watching football.” I’m like, “Me too. That’s the best.” And they say, “I want to drink one beer watching football.” I’m like, “Okay.” Or they say, “Sometimes I like to drink two beers while watching football.” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s fine. Really just don’t get drunk every day and that’s not because of the CLL, that’s just general advice.”
If you think of someone with CLL, people in observation do live with a higher risk of infection and other forms of cancer. So I do think the COVID-19 pandemic was much more limiting for people with CLL in observation than for the rest of the public so there are a few things like that. But aside from going somewhere where you can’t access medical care if you’re about to need treatment or some really dangerous activities that are not recommended for anybody, I tell people to just go ahead, enjoy their lives, and do whatever they want to do.
How can we extend the watch-and-wait period and slow down CLL or SLL progression?
Dr. Kerry Rogers: Not that I’m aware of. There are a couple of things, right? There’s a study with green tea extract tablets like a high dose that can lower the white count, but I don’t know that there’s any data that really help people live longer or really prolonged watch-and-wait.
There are things that I’m sure help people in general. You were saying you did some things to make sure you’re fit and rested and eating healthier. Those things can make people feel better and be better with their overall health. But I don’t know of anything people can do specifically to increase the amount of time before they need treatment.
Matcha green tea and supplements: Are they effective in managing CLL or SLL?
Dr. Kerry Rogers: Not that I know of for CLL. Vitamin D does have a variety of health benefits. If you’re deficient, getting that replaced is important for other health metrics. But I don’t know of anything specific that will help the CLL. [Supplmenents] aren’t regulated so it’s helpful to go on the Internet and look at some of the companies that rate the quality of supplements before you buy them.
Green tea, it was an extract used in a study. You’d have to drink more than one can physically drink in a day to get the same benefit if you’re going to drink the tea. So if someone wants to try that, I strongly recommend finding a high-quality green tea supplement because it’s just physically not possible to drink that much green tea in a day.
Can jumping rope be beneficial for managing CLL/SLL?
Dr. Kerry Rogers: Exercise is good for people, right? But there’s no data that jump rope actually helps CLL. Probably won’t help your joint health but will help your cardiovascular health. But it doesn’t do anything to impact the CLL specifically.
Managing CLL/SLL Comorbidities
Jeff Folloder: One of the things that I have learned through my 13 years of dealing with CLL, I finally believe my first CLL specialist. He said, “I’m more worried about the comorbidities than I am about the CLL. If you will actually put time and effort into taking care of those comorbidities, you’ll actually make my job easier.” So I have embraced that.
I know it’s going to sound pedantic, but you can exercise more, you can eat better, you can eat less, and you can do all the things that you need to do to reduce your comorbidities. And, truthfully, there is no upper ceiling for it. I’m currently training for a marathon. I’m relapsed and training for a marathon, so yay.
Dr. Kerry Rogers: Modifying your other risk factors for your other health conditions because that is something everybody can do in watch-and-wait. And I would say more people with CLL my clinic die of heart attacks than die of CLL. So just please keep that in mind. And, of course, keeping up with cancer screenings and vaccines is very important.
When to start treatment for CLL/SLL
What are the indicators that it’s time to end watch-and-wait and start treatment for CLL/SLL?
Dr. Kerry Rogers: There’s a group of people where they have no symptoms, lymph nodes aren’t big, blood counts look fine, and you say absolutely there’s no reason whatsoever to treat this person. There is no cut-off on white blood cell count where you need to do treatment. I do think if you get above 400 or 500, usually other reasons develop and it’s about time, but there’s no cutoff like, “Oh no, my white count hit 50. We need treatment.” That’s not a thing. And yes, there is a thing with doubling, but that’s only with higher white counts. So it’s not like, “Oh, it went from 10 to 20, I need treatment.” That’s not a thing. You can actually be very flexible with the white blood cell count. Don’t think of a hard number there.
There are people who I think could be ready for treatment.] The blood counts are going in the wrong direction so you can see the hemoglobin and platelets are dropping, white counts going up, and lymph nodes are getting big, but they’re not actually really problematic for the person. Maybe they’re having some fatigue so there’s a window where you could say like treatment’s reasonable.
The span from, “We shouldn’t do treatment,” to “We should have done this sooner,” especially for a first treatment can be over a year. You’ve got a very long window and that gives you some time to decide, along with your doctor, what treatment’s best for you and things like that. It’s uncommon that you hit something and you need treatment tomorrow. It’s more like an ongoing discussion for a while.
The things I see that I notice sometimes are, “The white count shooting up pretty fast, along with the hemoglobin and platelets kind of dropping.” Or every time people come back, there are more lymph nodes and they’re losing some weight. There are a lot more lymph nodes and you see this trend happening. And then I do see some people that develop a lot of fatigue that suddenly starts to interfere with their personal and professional activities and that would be a reason to say, “We should really do something before this really impairs your life more.”
Are there any specific signs to watch for?
Dr. Kerry Rogers: Every once in a while, I have a patient who develops a significant health concern that they think is in another area, like severe diarrhea or chest pain, that’s not addressed by going to like their cardiologist or something else. When people develop health concerns, weird symptoms — and not like, “Oh, my toe is itchy one day and then it’s not the next day,” that’s fine; that happens to everybody – something significant, impacting their life, weird that maybe other doctors they thought might help them with this can’t figure it out, that is always something to check in and ask, “Hey, could this be related to CLL?”
Because there are some weird things that happen to people with CLL and certainly the physician caring for anyone with CLL should be able to figure it out. If anyone develops weird health concerns that are really symptomatic or problematic that other doctors can’t figure out, always a good chance that it could be CLL related and you should check in.
Does CLL increase the risk of other cancers?
Dr. Kerry Rogers: Yes, it is true. CLL is a cancer of immune system cells called B lymphocytes so it changes the way the immune system works because the CLL cells are there. By the way, treatment to reduce the CLL cells doesn’t fix this — only makes the problem worse. Your immune system is what protects you from other cancers by killing abnormal cells that your body forms as it makes new cells over time so cancer screening is important.
The top ones we see are actually skin cancers and, of course, lymphomas, as was pointed out earlier, do occur in people with CLL but those are kind of related types of cancers. But skin cancer’s actually one of the top ones so I try to get everyone’s skin cancer screening.
Side effects of treatments
Fatigue caused by CLL treatment
Catherine Ferguson: That was the worst part of it for me, honestly. I could deal with any of the other side effects even when I just finished a clinical trial a year ago. I’ve been undetectable MRD and in remission now for a year and I feel so much better. But that fatigue, even during treatment. Everybody said once you start treatment, the fatigue goes away, but I still had the fatigue even during treatment till I got off of the meds.
I work out a lot and I went to the gym every day and I tried to just keep up my routines. I’m generally an active person anyhow so I try not to give into it.
For a time period there, I would fall asleep while I was working on the computer with my hand on the mouse and my wife would look over and say, “Cathy,” and then I just wake up and I’d start to keep on moving again like I didn’t do anything. But I didn’t decide I was going to take a nap; I would just fall asleep. It’s just really hard.
How do new CLL/SLL treatments differ from traditional ones and what are some of the latest options available?
Dr. Kerry Rogers: I like to say that about a decade and a half before this kind of chemotherapy or chemoimmunotherapy, which is chemotherapy with an antibody works real well. In last decade and a half have been all about targeted agents. We actually no longer use chemotherapy to treat CLL. We do use it to treat other lymphoma successfully, but the whole name of the game is oral targeted agents and these are drugs that interfere with proteins in the CLL cells that make them behave like cancer cells.
The two main classes of drugs are something called BTK inhibitors and venetoclax, and they are extremely successful with virtually everyone achieving a remission, and just work very well.
The field is currently looking at newer generation agents of these different dosing schemes or different combinations to try to make treatment more effective but also easier to do for people and to have fewer side effects.
Is it crucial to see a CLL specialist immediately after diagnosis, or can it wait?
Dr. Kerry Rogers: It’s actually an individual decision. There are some reasons that people actually definitely need to see a CLL specialist. One is just if things aren’t going well, right? So not responding to treatment, developing side effects, not being offered acceptable options from your general hematologist oncologist — things aren’t going well, always see an expert.
Some other good times are planning a treatment, any treatment, because, usually, the CLL specialist will be able to have a good and, hopefully, more detailed discussion about treatment options or even offer participation in a clinical trial, which has a lot of advantages. But this doesn’t always have to be done at the time people are diagnosed just because if you’re in watch-and-wait and you’re happy with what’s going on,] it doesn’t mean you have to run out and see a CLL specialist right away, especially if you don’t live near a CLL specialist.
If you live in Boston, it’s very easy to go see one of my colleagues at Dana-Farber and other excellent doctors in that area. But if you live in rural Ohio or West Virginia, we get people that come from West Virginia. It’s like a three-hour drive so it’s a big burden to do that right away
And then I guess at diagnosis, one of the main reasons to see a CLL specialist is to get questions answered and to learn about CLL, which I think benefits all people. Most people do want to learn more about it, but there’s] a group of people that cope by putting CLL from their mind and they can certainly delay seeing a CLL specialist until there’s a reason like needing treatment.