Leukapheresis for Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia

Sometimes very high numbers of leukemia cells in the blood cause problems with normal circulation. Chemotherapy may not lower the number of cells until a few days after the first dose. In the meantime, leukapheresis may be used before chemotherapy. In this procedure, your blood is passed through a special machine that removes white blood cells (including leukemia cells) and returns the rest of the blood cells and plasma back into the bloodstream.

For this procedure, you can lie in bed or sit in a reclining chair. Two IV lines are required − the blood is removed through one IV, and then is returned to the body through the other IV. Sometimes, a single large catheter is placed in the neck or under the collar bone for the pheresis − instead of using IV lines in the arms. This type of catheter is called a central line and has both IVs built in. Leukapheresis is not painful, but it can be hard to stay sitting or lying down in the same place for 2 or 3 hours. Also, sometimes calcium levels can drop during the process, causing numbness and tingling (especially in the hands and feet and around the mouth) and sometimes painful muscle spasms. This can be treated easily with calcium.

Leukapheresis works quickly to get the number of leukemia cells down. However, without further treatment (like chemotherapy, monoclonal antibodies, or targeted therapy) to kill the cancer cells, the cell count will go back up again.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: January 6, 2015 Last Revised: April 11, 2016

American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.