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Hairy Cell Leukemia

Leukemia is cancer in white blood cells, which form in bone marrow to fight infection. Hairy cell leukemia is a rare type of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. It develops when B lymphocytes, a mature type of white blood cell, become abnormal.

Neither the exact causes nor risk factors for hairy cell leukemia are known. A genetic mutation in stem cells in the bone marrow causes hairy cells to multiply out of control, crowding out other healthy blood cells.

Hairy cell leukemia takes its name from the thin, hair-like projections on the cells. It affects mostly older adults and is usually diagnosed around age 55. More than 90 percent of people who have hairy cell leukemia achieve complete remission with appropriate therapy.

Hairy cell leukemia symptoms

  • Pain or a feeling of fullness below the ribs
  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Frequent fever or infections
  • Unexplained weight loss

How can I get help for hairy cell leukemia?

The leukemia physicians at Rush will perform a thorough exam to confirm a diagnosis and determine the best course of treatment. You may need one or more of the following tests:

  • Blood tests to check for low counts of all blood cells and platelets
  • Review of previous bone marrow studies to look for hairy cells
  • Needle aspiration or biopsy (if necessary) for a new sample of bone marrow
  • Molecular test for certain markers in leukemia cells that can be targeted with specific drugs
  • Diagnostic imaging, such as CT scans and ultrasound, to see whether hairy cell leukemia has spread to the spleen or lymph nodes

Care for hairy cell leukemia at Rush

The leukemia experts at Rush may recommend one or more of the following treatments:

  • Observation with regular testing to monitor your condition
  • Chemotherapy using drugs that damage or kill abnormal B lymphocytes
  • Targeted therapy using monoclonal antibodies to target specific markers on leukemia cells
  • Stem cell transplantation from a healthy donor to treat patients who do not respond to other treatments
  • Surgery to remove your spleen if it is enlarged
  • Follow-up care to monitor your condition

Why choose Rush for hairy cell leukemia care?

  • Researchers at Rush conduct clinical trials to test new drugs and other treatments. Patients benefit from the latest leukemia treatments while helping advance cancer research.
  • The multidisciplinary team of leukemia specialists at Rush meets each week to discuss new patients with leukemia and determine the best course of treatment for each individual.
  • Patients receive excellent care from experienced Rush physicians who are specially trained in leukemia treatment. The Leukemia Program and the Coleman Foundation Comprehensive Blood and Bone Marrow Transplant Clinic have accreditations and recognitions from well-known health care organizations.

Departments and programs that treat this condition