Hairy cell leukemia is a rare and chronic form of blood cell cancer that strikes adults. If you have hairy cell leukemia, your bone marrow is producing too many B cells, also called lymphocytes, that then crowd out healthy white and red blood cells and platelets. The disease gets its name from the “hairy” appearance of the B cells when viewed under a microscope.
Medical professionals don’t know what causes hairy cell leukemia. It affects just 2 percent of the adults who get some form of leukemia. There are some links between developing this form of leukemia and working around some types of radiation or chemicals. There also may be a genetic component as men descended from Ashkenazi Jews are more likely to develop hairy cell leukemia.
Since hairy cell leukemia is very slow growing, many people who have it may not show any symptoms. The signs that do show may be mistaken for other diseases.
These include feeling weak or fatigued, bruising easily, losing weight and developing recurring infections. You may also have a full feeling, like you’ve just eaten a large meal, so your appetite may be diminished. Other symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, an enlarged spleen and a red rash on the skin.
Once hairy cell leukemia has progressed to where the excess B cells overwhelm healthy blood cells, you may notice even more infections, unusual bleeding that doesn’t stop easily, or anemia, which is caused by a low red blood cell count.
Hairy cell leukemia occurs when a person’s bone marrow makes too many B cells (also known as lymphocytes). B cells are a type of white blood cell that fights infections. These extra B cells are abnormal in appearance, taking on a “hairy” appearance, hence the name hairy cell leukemia.
It is not entirely clear what causes hairy cell leukemia. Scientists and doctors know that cancers in general occur when there is a genetic mutation that causes errors in a person’s DNA. However, doctors do not know the specific cause of the mutation that causes a person’s body to make too many and corrupted B cells. There are, however, some risk factors that may correlate with a person’s likelihood of obtaining hairy cell leukemia.
Hairy cell leukemia is more common in middle-aged people who are biologically male, and affects those of Ashkenazi Jew heritage more than those of other ethnic groups. Studies have also found links between exposure to industrial and agricultural chemicals and increased risk of hairy cell leukemia. Exposure to sawdust also seems to increase one’s risk of hairy cell leukemia. Finally, there does seem to be a correlation between people exposed to radiation and an increase in hairy cell leukemia, although the evidence is too inconclusive to suggest a direct cause and effect.
Hairy cell leukemia is an extremely slow growing form of cancer. Some doctors prefer to monitor it rather than treat it until symptoms occur.
Treatment for hairy cell leukemia usually consists of chemotherapy. In many cases, chemotherapy can put the leukemia in remission for many years. Some doctors prefer to use immunotherapy to boost your body’s immune system and kill off the cancer cells. In extreme cases, surgery to remove your spleen may help your body adjust your blood cell count back to normal.
Because of its slow-to-progress nature, the disease may not cause major complications. Many patients who have hairy cell leukemia live a full lifespan.
Because scientists do not know the specific cause of hairy cell leukemia, it is almost impossible to prevent. Avoiding risk factors such as significant exposure to industrial chemicals, agricultural chemicals, and sawdust may decrease the chances of obtaining hairy cell leukemia.
Certain actions may decrease one’s general risk of cancer, such as eating a healthy diet and maintaining a physically active lifestyle, avoiding tobacco products and sun exposure, and regularly visiting the doctor for physical examinations. However, while all of these things will increase one’s overall health, none of them have been specifically proven to reduce risk or prevent hairy cell leukemia.