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8 Ways To Live Better With CLL

Posted on August 04, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Todd Gersten, M.D.
Article written by
Joan Grossman

  • You can take steps to stay healthy and feel your best while living with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).
  • Adopting good daily habits can improve your mood and energy, make side effects from treatment easier to tolerate, and help you avoid complications of leukemia.

Living with chronic lymphocytic leukemia can be challenging, but you can take steps to live better and enjoy a high quality of life. Whether you’re currently treating CLL or monitoring your condition through watchful waiting, healthy lifestyle changes and basic precautions can protect your health and well-being.

How Can CLL Affect Your Well-Being?

CLL is a blood cancer in which bone marrow produces too many lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. This can impair the body’s ability to adequately fight infection. CLL primarily affects B-cell lymphocytes, white blood cells that produce antibodies in the immune system. CLL can also affect the number of red blood cells and platelets, which can cause anemia, impact tissue health, and impair blood clotting,

Common symptoms of CLL include fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, unexpected weight loss, and night sweats. Early-stage CLL may be asymptomatic.

CLL is diagnosed using blood tests, a physical exam, and an evaluation of your medical history. CLL progresses slowly. A range of effective treatment options, such as targeted therapies that attack cancer cells, can help most people with CLL maintain a fulfilling life for many years.

These tips can help you care for yourself while living with CLL.

1. Stay Physically Active

Research has shown that exercise and physical activity improves fatigue, quality of life, and immune system function. Staying active is considered by many health care professionals to be an important component of cancer care.

A brisk walk or bike ride can provide moderate aerobic exercise (activity in which you feel a little out of breath). Strength and resistance training are also important to improve muscle strength and endurance. The American Cancer Society recommends 150 to 300 minutes of moderate exercise each week, but you can slowly work your way up to 30 minutes or more of exercise each day. Remember, any exercise is better than no exercise at all.

Ask your health care provider for a referral to a physical therapist who can design an exercise program that is right for you.

2. Eat a Balanced Diet

Eating a well-balanced diet can support your overall health. A nutritious diet and healthy weight can also improve your strength during cancer treatment and help you better tolerate treatment side effects. Research shows a nutritious diet can help improve immune function and support healthy gut bacteria, which is associated with an effective immune system.

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society recommends a diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, low-fat protein and dairy, whole grains, and olive oil or other healthy oils. Avoid foods with trans fats or added sugar, and try not to eat more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium (salt) each day.

Along with a nutritious diet, consider adopting these beneficial habits:

  • Drink plenty of water, and stay hydrated.
  • Avoid caffeinated beverages if you experience nausea or acid reflux.
  • Avoid smoking to improve cancer treatment outcomes, decrease side effects from treatment, and lower the risk of cancer returning or spreading to secondary cancers.

If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation, and talk to your oncologist about your alcohol consumption.

3. Get Enough Sleep and Rest

Poor sleep quality is common for people with CLL. People with cancer can experience sleep disturbance or insomnia due to a number of factors, such as anxiety, pain, night sweats, or the side effects of radiation, chemotherapy, or medications. Losing sleep can impair your health and quality of life.

Good sleep hygiene can help you sleep better:

  • Keep your bedroom cool, and have a fan nearby in case you need it.
  • Sleep at similar times each day.
  • Avoid watching TV and looking at your phone or other screens at bedtime because light from screens can disturb sleep.
  • Don’t go to bed if you’re hungry or if you’re too full from eating.
  • Sleep on a soft towel if you experience night sweats.

If you’re tired in the daytime, make time to rest. Don’t feel guilty about napping when you need it. Quality sleep can improve your physical and mental health, support your immune system, and reduce stress.

4. Stay Positive and Manage Stress

A positive outlook can help you minimize stress and build resilience. It’s normal to have negative thoughts sometimes, and a cancer diagnosis can cause anxiety and depression. But you can take steps to maintain a positive attitude. Here are some things that can help you manage stress and stay positive:

  • Cultivate an attitude of gratitude, by focusing on things you’re grateful for — such as time with friends and family.
  • Do things you enjoy, like reading, listening to music, or watching upbeat movies.
  • Spend time in nature to recharge and refresh your outlook.
  • Find meaning in things outside of yourself, such as volunteering or helping others.
  • Learn techniques for managing stress, such as mindfulness training, yoga, or tai chi.

Talk to your health care provider if you need help managing stress. You can get a referral for mental health counseling or cognitive behavioral therapy.

5. Stick To Your Treatment Plan

It’s essential to maintain your treatment plan. Attend all follow-up and monitoring appointments. If you have any other health conditions, be sure to keep them under control as well as possible. Untreated comorbidities — other health conditions you have at the same time — can impact your CLL treatment options and outcome.

6. Avoid Infections

People with CLL have a high risk of infection due both to immune dysfunction from the disease itself and immune suppression from treatments. The risk for infection becomes higher the longer you have CLL, and infections among people living with CLL can be life-threatening. You can take simple steps to avoid infections and help protect your health.

Here are some things you can do to avoid infections:

  • Wash your hands carefully and frequently.
  • Keep up to date with appropriate vaccines, particularly flu and pneumonia vaccines.
  • Talk to your doctor before getting vaccines that contain live virus particles or bacteria.

People with CLL are advised to get vaccinations against COVID-19. Although vaccination against COVID-19 reduces your risk of infection, do not assume you are fully protected against COVID-19 once you’re vaccinated. Take extra precautions, wear N95 masks indoors and in crowded environments, and maintain social distancing.

Get medical advice on how to mitigate risks if you’re thinking about attending a crowded event, especially if you are currently in treatment. Your health care provider can also advise you on an appropriate vaccination schedule.

7. Talk to Loved Ones

Talking to family and close friends honestly about your experience with CLL can help you get the emotional support you need. Those who are closest to you may need guidance on how they can help you, and they may not know what to say. Once they understand your experience better, they will have more insight into how they can help.

Open communication with loved ones can help you make health care decisions and express your feelings about your condition. Staying connected to the people you care about is an important component of your self-care.

8. Connect With Others Living With CLL

People with CLL can benefit from connecting with others who understand life with blood cancer. In-person support groups and online support groups, such as MyLeukemiaTeam, can provide a place to safely talk about life with CLL.

MyLeukemiaTeam members often discuss the support they get from one another. “We have to be faithful and rely on the support of family, friends, and this fabulous support group here,” wrote one member.

“You are not alone,” another member reminded others. “We are here to support one another.”

“With the help and support of our awesome members of MyLeukemiaTeam, we will get through this. Supporting each other and a positive outlook means a lot in this battle!” wrote another team member.

Talk to Others Who Understand

MyLeukemiaTeam is the social network for people with leukemia and their loved ones. On MyLeukemiaTeam, more than 11,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with leukemia.

Will you try any of these tips to feel better while living with CLL? What else helps you feel your best? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Todd Gersten, M.D. is a hematologist-oncologist at the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Wellington, Florida. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Joan Grossman is a freelance writer, filmmaker, and consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. Learn more about her here.

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