Hairy cell leukemia (HCL) is a rare form of cancer. It involves white blood cells called B lymphocytes. White blood cells protect the body from infection. HCL gets its name from the tiny hair-like projections that stick out of the surface of these cancer cells. Illness results from the buildup of these cancer cells in the bone marrow and spleen.
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Cancer occurs when cells in the body become abnormal. They divide without control or order. Leukemia is cancer of the white blood cells and their parent cells. Leukemia cells do not function normally. In this case, they can not fight infections. This means that the person is more likely to become infected with viruses or bacteria. The cancerous cells also overgrow the bone marrow. This forces other normal cells, like platelets out. Platelets are needed to help the blood clot. As a result, people with leukemia may bleed more easily.
The exact cause of HCL is unknown, but it may be linked to a genetic mutation.
HCL occurs more often in men. It also occurs more often in people over 50 years old.
HCL usually develops slowly over time. Early on, there may not be any symptoms.
In those that have them, symptoms may include:
- Abdominal swelling
- Easy bruising
- Night sweats
- Swollen lymph nodes
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Your bodily fluids and tissues may be tested. This can be done with:
- Blood tests
- Bone marrow biopsy
Images may be taken of your bodily structures with a CT scan.
HCL is a slow-growing cancer. As HCL progresses, treatment may include:
- Surgery— A splenectomy may need to be done to remove an enlarged spleen.
- Chemotherapy —This is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It may be given in many forms. This includes pill, injection, and through an IV. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body.
- Medications, such as cladribine, pentostatin, and interferon, are used to fight the hairy cells.
- Blood transfusion —A blood transfusion may be done to treat anemia.
- Antibiotics or other medications to fight infection.
There are no current guidelines to prevent HCL because the cause is unknown.
American Cancer Society
The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society
Canadian Cancer Society
Provincial Health Services Authority
General information about hairy cell leukemia treatment. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/leukemia/patient/hairy-cell-treatment-pdq. Updated April 6, 2016. Accessed January 8, 2018.
Hairy cell leukemia. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T113762/Hairy-cell-leukemia. Updated March 22, 2017. Accessed January 8, 2018.
Hairy cell leukemia. Leukemia & Lymphoma Society website. Available at: http://www.lls.org/leukemia/hairy-cell-leukemia. Accessed January 8, 2018.
Treating hairy cell leukemia. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/chronic-lymphocytic-leukemia/treating/hairy-cell-leukemia.html. Updated April 11, 2016. Accessed January 8, 2018.
Last reviewed November 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP Last Updated: 12/20/2014