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Hairy cell leukemia

 

Definition

Hairy cell leukemia (HCL) is a rare cancer of the blood. It affects B cells, a type of white blood cell (lymphocyte).

Alternative Names

Leukemic reticuloendotheliosis; HCL; Leukemia - hairy cell

Causes

HCL is caused by the abnormal growth of B cells. The cells can look "hairy" under the microscope because they have fine projections coming from their surface.

HCL can lead to low numbers of normal blood cells.

The cause of this disease is unknown. It affects men more often than women. The average age of onset is 55. Hairy cell leukemia is rare.

Symptoms
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Excessive sweating (especially at night)
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling full after eating only a small amount
  • Recurrent infections and fevers
  • Swollen lymph glands
  • Weakness
  • Weight loss
Signs and tests

During a physical exam, the doctor may be able to feel a swollen spleen or liver. An abdominal CT scan may be done to confirm this swelling.

A complete blood count shows low levels of white and red blood cells as well as platelets.

Blood tests and a bone marrow biopsy can detect hairy cells. Flow cytometry or a test called TRAP can confirm the cancer diagnosis.

Support Groups

Expectations (prognosis)

Newer chemotherapy treatments have greatly improved the survival of patients with hairy cell leukemia. Most patients with hairy cell leukemia can expect to live 10 years or longer with the disease.

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if you have significant bleeding. Also call if you have signs of infection, such as a persistent fever, cough, or general ill feeling.

Complications

The low blood counts caused by hairy cell leukemia can lead to infections, fatigue, and excessive bleeding.

Treatments

Treatment may not be needed for the early stages of this disease. Some patients may need an occasional blood transfusion.

If treatment is needed because of very low blood counts, a variety of chemotherapy drugs can be used. A drug called interferon is also used. In most cases, chemotherapy can relieve the symptoms of the disease for many years. (When the signs and symptoms go away, you are said to be in remission.) Interferon can relieve symptoms but is unlikely to lead to remission.

Removing the spleen may improve blood counts, but is unlikely to cure the disease. Antibiotics can be used to treat infections. People with low blood counts will receive growth factors and, possibly, transfusions.

Prevention

There is no known way to prevent this disease.

References

Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007: pp.1403-1404.


Review Date: 7/11/2008
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; and James R. Mason, MD, Oncologist, Director, Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program and Stem Cell Processing Lab, Scripps Clinic, Torrey Pines, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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