By Steve Blanchard - September 09, 2022
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Steve White died in August at the age of 48. He was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, according to his Twitter feed, and underwent a stem cell transplant in April 2022.
Hi. Many of you know that I have been dealing with a cancer (CLL) diagnosis over the last 8 years. I am now at a point where I need to go through a bone marrow transplant. It is something I knew would eventually have to happen since 2017 and now that day is actually here.— Stephen White (@sgw94) April 6, 2022
According to Dr. Javier Pinilla, head of the lymphoma section at Moffitt Cancer Center, chronic lymphocytic leukemia is a type of cancer in which a person’s bone marrow produces too many small white blood cells called B lymphocytes that normally are part of the body’s immune response.
“This type of leukemia is completely different from acute lymphocytic leukemia as it may develop slowly over time,” Pinilla said. “This is a disease of the immune system that requires frequent monitoring.”
According to Pinilla, acute lymphocytic leukemia develops much more rapidly and frequently requires intensive chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. Contrarily, treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia consists of multiple targeted therapies and monoclonal antibodies. Stem cell transplants are used much more sparingly.
White shared that he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2017 and had been monitoring his health. Pinilla said the disease usually appears in older adults and a patient could have this type of blood cancer for years before experiencing any symptoms.
“Typically, CLL can affect the lymph nodes, spleen and bone marrow at diagnosis,” Pinilla said. “So therapy for this type of blood cancer requires some carefully planned treatment.”
Pinilla said the cause of chronic lymphocytic leukemia is unknown, but researchers know that changes occur at the cellular level. These genetic abnormalities, he added, cause cells to survive longer than normal cells and build up in the bone marrow instead of dying off.
“Those leukemia cells can then spill over into the bloodstream and spread to other organs,” he said. “Current research does not indicate a link to diet, smoking or any other lifestyle choices.”
There are some risk factors associated with the disease, however. The risk of chronic lymphocytic leukemia increases with age; nearly 90% of patients are 50 or older. The cancer is more prevalent in men, and those with a family history are more at risk to develop the disease themselves.
"Most often people with CLL do not exhibit any symptoms and many diagnoses are discovered during blood work for another unrelated health issue. Typically, that’s when patients and physicians discover a high lymphocyte count."- Dr. Javier Pinilla, Malignant Hematology Department
“Most often people with CLL do not exhibit any symptoms and many diagnoses are discovered during blood work for another unrelated health issue,” Pinilla said. “Typically, that’s when patients and physicians discover a high lymphocyte count.”
Each patient is different, of course, and individuals with chronic lymphocytic leukemia are monitored regularly and treated as their condition changes.
“The key message with CLL is that we can diagnose it and treat it, but we cannot yet cure it,” Pinilla said. “But we are doing more research to find better therapies such as CAR T and hopefully a cure. We just aren’t there yet.”