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This section outlines treatments that are the standard of care (the best proven treatments available) for this specific type of cancer. When making treatment plan decisions, patients are also encouraged to consider clinical trials as an option. A clinical trial is a research study to test a new treatment to evaluate whether it is safe, effective, and possibly better than standard treatment. Your doctor can help you review all treatment options. For more information, see the Clinical Trials and Current Research sections.
In cancer care, different types of doctors often work together to create a patient’s overall treatment plan that combines different types of treatments. This is called a multidisciplinary team.
The goal of treatment for leukemia is remission (absence of cancer symptoms; also called “no evidence of disease” or NED). Descriptions of the most common treatment options for B-cell leukemia are listed below. Treatment options and recommendations depend on several factors, including the type of leukemia, possible side effects, and the patient’s preferences and overall health. Learn more about making treatment decisions.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells, usually by stopping the cancer cells’ ability to grow and divide. Systemic chemotherapy is delivered through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout the body. Chemotherapy is given by a medical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating cancer with medication, or a hematologist, a doctor who specializes in treating blood disorders. A chemotherapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of cycles given over a set period of time. A patient may receive one drug at a time or combinations of different drugs at the same time.
Drugs that are used to treat HCL include cladribine (Leustatin) and pentostatin (Nipent). For most people with HCL, both cladribine and pentostatin can cause remissions that last for many years and are the standard initial treatment for the disease.
PLL is treated with combination chemotherapy, meaning more than one drug is used. Several regimens may be used. The regimens are chosen by the type of chemotherapy the patient may have received previously and the possible side effects.
The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the individual and the dose used, but they can include fatigue, risk of infection, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, and diarrhea. These side effects usually go away once treatment is finished.
Learn more about chemotherapy and preparing for treatment. The medications used to treat cancer are continually being evaluated. Talking with your doctor is often the best way to learn about the medications prescribed for you, their purpose, and their potential side effects or interactions with other medications. Learn more about your prescriptions by using searchable drug databases.
Immunotherapy (also called biologic therapy) is designed to boost the body's natural defenses to fight the cancer. It uses materials made either by the body or in a laboratory to bolster, target, or restore immune system function. Immunotherapy for HCL includes recombinant interferon alpha (Alferon, Intron A, Roferon-A). Learn more about immunotherapy.
Targeted therapy is a treatment that targets the cancer’s specific genes, proteins, or the tissue environment that contributes to cancer growth and survival. This type of treatment blocks the growth and spread of cancer cells while limiting damage to normal cells.
Recent studies show that not all cancers have the same targets. To find the most effective treatment, your doctor may run tests to identify the genes, proteins, and other factors involved in your leukemia. As a result, doctors can better match each patient with the most effective treatment whenever possible. In addition, many research studies are taking place now to find out more about specific molecular targets and new treatments directed at them. Learn more about targeted treatments.
Monoclonal antibodies are a type of targeted therapy that target specific proteins on the surface of the cancer cell. Rituximab (Rituxan) is an antibody directed against the surface protein CD20. BL22 immunotoxin is an antibody that is designed to attach to the surface protein CD22 and deliver a toxin to the cancer cell. Both of these have been used to treat HCL that did not go into remission after initial therapy. However, BL22 is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of PLL and is only available in clinical trials. Alemtuzumab (Campath) is an antibody that targets the surface protein CD52 and has been used to treat PLL. Talk with your doctor about possible side effects for a specific medication and how they can be managed.
Surgery to remove the spleen (splenectomy), which also makes white blood cells, may be done for some patients. A surgical oncologist is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer using surgery. Learn more about surgery.
Stem cell transplantation/bone marrow transplantation
A stem cell transplant is a medical procedure in which diseased bone marrow is replaced by highly specialized cells, called hematopoietic stem cells. Hematopoietic stem cells are found both in the bloodstream and in the bone marrow. Today, this procedure is more commonly called a stem cell transplant, rather than bone marrow transplant, because it is the blood stem cells that are typically being transplanted, not the actual bone marrow tissue.
Before recommending transplantation, doctors will talk with the patient about the risks of this treatment and consider several other factors, such as the type of leukemia, results of any previous treatment, and patient’s age and general health. Transplantation is a higher-risk procedure. It is not used often for people with B-cell leukemia because it is not always an effective therapy for these diseases and because many patients with B-cell leukemia are older and the risks of the procedure are higher.
There are two types of stem cell transplantation depending on the source of the replacement blood stem cells: allogeneic (ALLO) and autologous (
In both types, the goal of transplantation is to destroy disease cells in the marrow, blood, and other parts of the body and allow replacement blood stem cells to create healthy bone marrow. In most stem cell transplants, the patient is treated with high doses of chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy to destroy as many cancer cells as possible. Learn more about bone marrow and stem cell transplantation.
Leukemia and its treatment often cause side effects. In addition to treatment to slow, stop, or eliminate the disease, an important part of care is relieving a person’s symptoms and side effects. This approach is called palliative or supportive care, and it includes supporting the patient with his or her physical, emotional, and social needs.
Palliative care can help a person at any stage of illness. People often receive treatment for the leukemia and treatment to ease side effects at the same time. In fact, patients who receive both often have less severe symptoms, better quality of life, and report they are more satisfied with treatment.
Before treatment begins, talk with your health care team about the possible side effects of your specific treatment plan and supportive care options. And during and after treatment, be sure to tell your doctor or another health care team member if you are experiencing a problem, so it is addressed as quickly as possible. Learn more about palliative care.
Recurrent B-cell leukemia
A remission is when leukemia cannot be detected in the body and there are no symptoms. This may also be called “no evidence of disease” or NED.
A remission can be temporary or permanent. This uncertainty leads to many survivors feeling worried or anxious that the disease will come back. While many remissions are permanent, it’s important to talk with your doctor about the possibility of the leukemia returning. Understanding the risk of recurrence and the treatment options may help you feel more prepared if the disease does return. Learn more about coping with the fear of recurrence.
If the leukemia does return after the original treatment, it is called recurrent leukemia. When this occurs, a cycle of testing will begin again to learn as much as possible about the recurrence. After testing is done, you and your doctor will talk about your treatment options. Often the treatment plan will include the therapies described above (such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, and stem cell transplantation) but may be used in a different combination or given at a different pace. For instance, cladribine and pentostatin can work again to treat HCL if it recurs after a long period of remission. Your doctor may also suggest clinical trials that are studying new ways to treat this type of recurrent leukemia.
People with recurrent leukemia often experience emotions such as disbelief or fear. Patients are encouraged to talk with their health care team about these feelings and ask about support services to help them cope. Learn more about dealing with a recurrence.
If the leukemia continues to worsen despite treatment, it is called refractory or resistant leukemia.
Patients with this diagnosis are encouraged to talk with doctors who are experienced in treating this type of leukemia, because there can be different opinions about the best treatment plan. Learn more about seeking a second opinion before starting treatment, so you are comfortable with the treatment plan chosen. This discussion may include clinical trials studying new treatments.
For HCL, your health care team may recommend a treatment plan that includes rituximab and/or BL22 immunotoxin. Supportive care will also be important to help relieve symptoms and side effects.
For many patients, a diagnosis of refractory leukemia can be very stressful and, at times, difficult to bear. Patients and their families are encouraged to talk about the way they are feeling with doctors, nurses, social workers, or other members of the health care team. It may also be helpful to talk with other patients, including through a support group.
If treatment fails
Recovery from leukemia is not always possible. If treatment is not successful, the disease may be called advanced or terminal leukemia.
This diagnosis is stressful, and this is difficult to discuss for many people. However, it is important to have open and honest conversations with your doctor and health care team to express your feelings, preferences, and concerns. The health care team is there to help, and many team members have special skills, experience, and knowledge to support patients and their families. Making sure a person is physically comfortable and free from pain is extremely important.
Palliative care given toward the end of a person’s life is called hospice care. You and your family are encouraged to think about where you would be most comfortable: at home, in the hospital, or in a hospice environment. Nursing care and special equipment can make staying at home a workable alternative for many families. Learn more about advanced cancer care planning.
After the death of a loved one, many people need support to help cope with the loss. Learn more about grief and bereavement.
Find out more about common terms used during cancer treatment.