What is Hairy Cell Leukemia?

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  • Written By: K T Solis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 30 October 2018
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Hairy cell leukemia is a cancer of the blood. In this type of cancer the bone marrow produces an overabundance of B cells, white blood cells that fight against infection. The cells, when observed under a microscope, appear hairy because of hair-like villi surrounding them. The disease is mainly found in middle-aged adults and the elderly.

Doctors are unsure why some people contract this kind of leukemia, but certain types of people are at a higher risk of developing this particular form of blood cancer. Those who have been exposed to radiation or chemicals on a frequent basis, people who have a family history of blood cancer, and those with Jewish ancestry are at a higher risk of developing hairy cell leukemia.

Some patients show no symptoms of hairy cell leukemia while others experience symptoms that include unexplained bruising, frequent infections, tiredness, loss of weight, a sense of fullness inside the abdomen, and weakness. The infections the patients suffer are often accompanied by fever and chills. They may also suffer from shortness of breath or lumps located on certain areas of the body. Of course, these symptoms can be signs of various other diseases as well; therefore, it is best to visit the doctor in order to receive a thorough medical examination.


When a doctor suspects that a patient may have hairy cell leukemia, he or she will determine whether hairy cell leukemia cells are present in the blood. The doctor will also test to see if the patient has a reduced number of blood cells. He or she will next determine if the patient has an enlarged spleen. A physical exam, blood tests, a computerized tomography (CT) scan, and a bone marrow biopsy are three tests the doctor will conduct on the patient in order to diagnose a patient with hairy cell leukemia.

Since hairy cell leukemia is a slow-progressing cancer, it can be effectively treated at any stage. At times, this particular cancer does not progress and patients can forgo treatment. Modern-day treatments can put hairy cell leukemia in remission for several years. Chemotherapy, biological therapy, and surgery are common treatments for this form of leukemia.

Patients who are unresponsive to chemotherapy are prescribed biological therapy, a type of treatment where drugs are used to fight the cancer. Alpha-interferon and Rituximab are two medications favored by physicians to combat the leukemia. In rare cases, the physician may opt to remove the patient's spleen.

Removing the patient's spleen helps to restore a normal blood count within the body. It is also necessary if the patient's enlarged spleen causes pain. Despite the fact that this cancer is easily treated, frequent follow-up appointments with the physician are necessary since this type of leukemia is never completely cured.



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