I was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia
(CLL) in 2006. CLL usually progresses slowly, so there was
a period of “watch and wait” before I needed treatment.
In late 2013, I started treatment with a drug that had just
been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
(FDA), and now I am in remission and I feel ;ne. Even
if my disease relapses at some point, I am con;dent that
other new drugs will be available to help manage my
I was 48 when I was diagnosed, which is young for CLL.
A routine physical examination showed high white
blood cell counts, speci;cally the lymphocytes, which we
thought resulted from a case of bronchitis. But the same
thing showed up the next year, and my family doctor
consulted a hematologist, who said, “;at could be CLL.”
And so it was.
I didn’t have any symptoms except for the elevated white
blood cell counts, so we did “watch and wait” for 7. 5
years. I would visit my hematologist-oncologist every
three months for checkups and blood tests. During 2013,
however, I got progressively more anemic as my blood cell
counts dropped, and so did my platelet numbers. ;at’s
called thrombocytopenia, and it meant that the CLL was
impacting my bone marrow. I also started to get some
swelling in the lymph nodes around my jaw and some
swelling in my spleen. I was getting very tired—just going
up a couple of ;ights of stairs le; me out of breath. In
December, the anemia and the thrombocytopenia were
bad enough that it was time to pull the trigger and start
some form of treatment.
;e standard treatment for CLL is a chemotherapy
regimen called FCR for the drugs involved, ;udarabine,
cyclophosphamide, and rituximab. It works well, but it
can cause damage to the bone marrow and other problems
down the line. So I wanted something that was new and
more targeted toward the cancer itself, and something that
would be a little bit gentler on the rest of my body.
My hematologist and I decided to go with obinutuzumab,
a monoclonal antibody that had just been approved by the
FDA under the brand name Gazyva. It works by attaching
itself to certain proteins on the cancer cells and killing
them; it also helps the body’s immune system go a;er the
I had eight infusions over six months. I started just before
Christmas 2013 and ;nished in May 2014. ;ere were
a few side e;ects during the treatment. My anemia got
worse and I needed a transfusion to get my hemoglobin
and hematocrit back up. And I developed a cough that
lasted for weeks. But overall it was pretty easy, looking
back on it.
Now I feel great. All my blood cell counts have returned to
normal, except that I have low numbers of lymphocytes,
but that’s the whole idea behind the treatment. My
hemoglobin, platelets, neutrophils, and everything else is
A few years back, I thought the future was not so bright.
;e treatment options were limited. But now it looks like
there is really going to be a big change in the way that CLL
is treated. In addition to obinutuzumab, several other
drugs have been approved by the FDA as treatments for
CLL in recent months. None of these are curative, but they
all seem very e;ective and I think these new treatments
are going to have a signi;cant e;ect on the natural course
of the disease.
I am a pharmacologist myself, so I understand the science
behind these drugs, but I still ;nd them amazing. I think
that with all the improvements and breakthroughs that are
happening in science today, we are really on the cusp of
eliminating cancer as we now know it.
A couple of years ago, my daughter asked me if she could
also develop the type of cancer I have now. And I said yes,
I suppose it is possible, but don’t be concerned, because
it is my ;rm belief that by the time you get to be my age,
virtually all cancers will be either preventable, curable, or
treatable, similar to how we can treat high blood pressure
now. I really think we can look forward to that for the next
LIVING WITH CHRONIC LYMPHOCYTIC LEUKEMIA