Surgery is not a common treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL). But rarely, some people need an operation to remove their spleen (splenectomy).
What is the spleen?
The spleen is an organ on the upper left side of your tummy (abdomen).
It is part of the lymphatic system and filters the blood, removing worn out red blood cells. It also stores red blood cells and contains lymph node tissue and many lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are types of white blood cells. Your white blood cells help fight infection.
When do you have surgery to remove your spleen?
The spleen is quite a large organ. In CLL, it sometimes becomes bigger and can cause problems.
The spleen's normal job is to filter the blood and to destroy and break down worn out red blood cells. When you have CLL your spleen can become so clogged up with abnormal cells that it doesn't work properly. The spleen swells because there are too many blood vessels.
An operation to remove the spleen is called a splenectomy. You might have this because your spleen is destroying too many red blood cells or platelets. Removing the spleen can relieve this symptom.
Some people are not able to have surgery. If this is the case your specialist might suggest a short course of radiotherapy to the spleen.
Before your operation
You will have tests before your surgery to check you are fit enough to have the operation. You also have an appointment at the hospital pre assessment clinic. You will meet your surgeon and other members of the team looking after you.
You will probably go into hospital on the day of your operation. Your doctor will tell you how long you might stay in hospital.
Having your operation
Your surgeon might remove your spleen through either:
- a large cut just under your ribs in the middle or left side of your abdomen (open surgery)
- keyhole (laparoscopic) surgery
Keyhole surgery is where the surgeon makes a few small cuts in your abdomen. They put a thin tube called a laparoscope through one of the cuts. The tube has a camera attached. The surgeon can see the pictures of the inside of your abdomen on a TV screen.
Through the other cuts they put in surgical instruments to remove the spleen.
You usually recover more quickly from keyhole surgery than open surgery. This means you can go home sooner. But it may not be possible for you to have keyhole surgery if your spleen is too large.
After your operation
It’s normal to have pain for the first week or so. You have painkillers to help control the pain. Your doctors and nurses give you painkillers by drip, tablets or liquids if you need them.
You usually have drainage tubes that collect the fluid draining from the wound. Your nurse takes out the drainage tubes when there is no more fluid draining. This is normally after a couple of days.
Your nurse takes your drip out as soon as you can start eating and drinking again. This may take a couple of days. Your doctor listens to your stomach (abdomen) with a stethoscope. As soon as the doctor can hear your bowel working again, you start taking sips of water. Gradually you work up to eating and drinking normally.
You normally go home after about a week. You should be able to go home sooner if you have had laparoscopic surgery. Everyone recovers at their own pace and your doctors make sure you are ready before you go home.
Helping protect your immune system
The spleen is part of your immune system and helps to fight infection. Without a spleen you will be more at risk of infection.
To help prevent infection in the future, you will need to have some vaccinations. You have these before, or just after, the operation. It is best to have these 2 weeks before surgery.
You will need to take antibiotics for the rest of your life because of these changes to your immune system.
In case of a medical emergency, you should carry a card saying you have had surgery to remove your spleen. Before you go abroad, talk to your doctor. They might advise extra vaccinations because your immunity is reduced.