Leukemia Home > Hairy Cell Leukemia

Hairy cell leukemia is an uncommon type of cancer that most often affects older males. The disease gets its name because the leukemia cells appear "hairy" when viewed with a microscope. Symptoms may include fatigue, fever, frequent infections, and easy bruising or bleeding. Treatment often results in a long-lasting period during which some or all of the symptoms of the cancer are gone.

What Is Hairy Cell Leukemia?

Hairy cell leukemia is a rare cancer of the blood and bone marrow that progresses slowly or not at all. It is called hairy cell leukemia because the leukemia cells look "hairy" when viewed under a microscope.
 

Understanding Hairy Cell Leukemia and Blood Cells

Normally, the bone marrow produces stem cells (immature cells) that develop into mature blood cells. There are three types of mature blood cells, which include:
 
  • Red blood cells, which carry oxygen and other materials to all tissues of the body
  • White blood cells, which fight infection and disease
  • Platelets, which help prevent bleeding by causing blood clots to form.
 
In hairy cell leukemia, too many stem cells develop into a type of white blood cell called lymphocytes. These may also be called leukemia cells. There are three types of lymphocytes, which include:
 
  • B lymphocytes that make antibodies to help fight infection
  • T lymphocytes that help B lymphocytes make antibodies to help fight infection
  • Natural killer cells that attack cancer cells and viruses.
 
In hairy cell leukemia, the B lymphocytes do not work normally and, as the number of lymphocytes increases in the blood and bone marrow, there is less room for healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. This may cause infection, anemia, and easy bleeding. Some of the leukemia cells may also collect in the spleen and cause it to swell.
 
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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