Hairy Cell Leukemia

Overview of Hairy Cell Leukemia

Hairy cell leukemia is the rarest form of cancer. It is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. It has the highest survival rate post-treatment of any cancer.

Cancer not only affects the organs but also the blood. Leukemia is a blood cancer caused by white blood cells. The white blood cells outnumber the red blood cells and platelets, hindering the functioning of the cells. There are many types and sub-types of leukemia.
Hairy Cell Leukemia is a slowly progressing form of cancer. It is a rare subtype of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). In this condition bone marrow produces too many lymphocytes.
Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that fights infection. When an increase in leukemia cells occurs, platelets, WBC, and RBCs are not produced to fulfill the required amount.
It is called hairy cell leukemia because under the microscope it has tiny fragments (thin projections) giving the effect of hairs. Since it is a chronic subtype, it may never disappear completely.

Prevalence of Hairy Cell Leukemia

Hairy Cell Leukemia has a 5-year survival rate after treatment of about 90 percent. Cladribine therapy has resulted in effective results over the years with a complete remission rate of 85 percent.

Doctors Treating Hairy Cell Leukemia

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Signs and Symptoms of Hairy Cell Leukemia

Hairy Cell Leukemia doesn’t have any specific signs and symptoms, but the following signs could be an indication of Hairy Cell Leukemia:

  • Chronic fever
  • Chills
  • Weight loss (unexplained)
  • Easy bruising (unexplained)
  • Pale skin
  • Discomfort in the upper stomach (enlarged spleen)
  • Extreme tiredness or fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Recurrent infections
  • Painless lumps found in the neck, underarm, stomach, or groin
  • Spontaneous bleeding


Causes of Hairy Cell Leukemia

The exact cause of Hairy Cell Leukemia is not yet confirmed but DNA mutation in the developing stem cell in the bone marrow is a possibility. 

  • Hairy cells develop in the bone marrow, liver, and spleen. This can cause several other health complications including; anemia, neutropenia, and thrombocytopenia.
  • Women are more at risk of developing Hairy Cell Leukemia than men, especially middle-aged and older women.

Risk Factors of Hairy Cell Leukemia

Given below are some conditions which can increase the risk of developing hairy cell leukemia:

  • Long term exposure to ionizing radiation
  • Prolonged exposures to wood or sawdust 
  • Family history of the hairy cell leukemia
  • Presence of malignant disorders such as bone marrow aplasia
  • Prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals such as benzene or pesticides

Complications of Hairy Cell Leukemia 

Hairy cell leukemia is a disease that slowly progresses and then stabilizes. Some common complications of this disease are:

  • Bleeding

When the blood platelets count is low, your body fails to heal the wounds. That is why the person may suffer from easy bruising as well as severe bleeding. 

It is a condition in which the person suffers from a deficiency of blood. When the blood cells count is less, the transfer of oxygen is low. This leads to a state of constant tiredness.

  • Infections

When the body’s immune system is incompetent, the body is susceptible to a high risk of bacterial infections.




There is no concrete data related to the prevention of hairy cell leukemia. But avoiding long-term exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation can help to reduce the chances of this disease occurrence.




A physical examination is done. An enlarged spleen can be felt by the doctor. Diagnostic tests and bone marrow tests are done including:

  • CBC Test
  • Peripheral Blood Smear
  • Immunophenotyping
  • Bone Marrow Biopsy
  • Imaging


Treatment of Hairy Cell Leukemia | When to Consult a Doctor

A different approach and treatment method are selected for treating adults at different stages. For ages 60 and older, the standard treatment is not opted because of the toxicity of the treatment. Relapsed cancer treatment is also different.

5 types of standard treatment for Hairy Cell Leukemia include:

  • Watchful Waiting
  • Chemotherapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Surgery
  • Targeted Therapy
  1. Watchful Waiting

For very early stages, a patient is closely watched, without starting treatment until there are changes in the signs and symptoms.

  1. Chemotherapy 

For first-line treatment, chemotherapy is done for HCL. Chemotherapy drugs can eliminate cancer for many years.  

  1. Immunotherapy

The immune system is used to fight cancer cells.  The immune system is boosted to restore the natural defenses against cancer.

  1. Surgery

The enlarged spleen is removed via splenectomy. It may improve the blood count, as the spleen helps make the white blood cells.

  1. Targeted Therapy

Specific cancer cells are targeted via drugs and other substances.  

Hairy cell leukemia is a rare form of cancer. Treatment might not be necessary for earlier stages. Consult an oncologist as soon as possible.