Hairy cell leukemia is a rare form of chronic leukemia that is so named because fine, hair-like projections surround the cancer cells on microscopic examination. The cause of the condition is unclear.
Leukemia means cancer of the white blood cells. The cancer originates in the stem cells causing them to produce an excess of white blood cells, which eventually disrupts the normal balance of blood cells. A leukemia patient becomes deficient in red blood cells and platelets meaning the blood’s ability to transport oxygen around the body is compromised as well as its ability to clot when an injury occurs. The white blood cells also develop abnormally, meaning the patient is susceptible to infection.
The symptoms of hairy cell leukemia are similar to those of other leukemias and include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Symptoms of anemia such as breathlessness, fatigue and pale skin
- Bleeding tendency
- Frequent infections
- Enlarged spleen
Diagnosis is suspected and carried out by a hematologist, a specialist in blood disorders. Blood tests are performed to check the number of white blood cells present in the blood. If a patient has hairy cell leukemia, their red blood cell count and platelet count will be reduced. A bone marrow sample may also be taken to give a more detailed clinical picture of the patient’s disease.
Hairy cell leukemia is a slow growing cancer and treatment may not be required initially. The patient will have the their blood monitored on a regular basis and treatment may be started if the white blood cell count increases or symptoms manifest. The treatments available include chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Chemotherapy is the most common treatment approach to this condition. Examples of immunotherapy agents that may be used in combination with chemotherapy include interferon and rituximab.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc