Hairy cell leukemia is a rare and slow-growing type of blood cancer wherein the bone marrow (the spongy tissue within the bones where blood cells are generated) synthesizes too many B-lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that fights infection.
The bone marrow usually produces stem cells, which are like blank slates that matures further to become either the RBC (which carries oxygenated blood), WBC (shield body from infections) or platelets (prevents bleeding by forming blood clots). If one is diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia, most of the stem cells produced by the bone marrow are converted into abnormal white blood cells called B lymphocytes, hence it limits the maturation of stem cells into healthy WBC, RBC and platelets.
These excessive quantities of abnormal B-lymphocytes look like hairy structures when seen under microscope, thus the name of the condition. Although, hairy cell leukemia is considered as a chronic condition and it may never completely go away, still with proper treatment, one can live a long time with this disease.
Just like any other type of cancer, the absolute cause of hairy cell leukemia is still unknown. But several studies surface that HCL usually occurs due to damage or alteration in the DNA of the bone marrow stem cells. Due to this mutation of the genetic material, the bone marrow rapidly produces too many white blood cells that usually grow abnormally, do not function properly and crowd up without dying leading to tumorous structures.
The causative factors that increase the risk of hairy cell leukemia include:
Age: It is more commonly seen in middle-aged or older adults.
Gender: Women are more prone to hairy cell leukemia than men.
Chemicals: Exposure to certain chemicals may increase the risk of Hairy Cell Leukemia.
Radiation: Exposure to high levels of radiation when a person works around X-ray machines or doesn’t take proper precautions while handling radioactive substances can make him or her more prone to HCL.
While many people do not get any symptoms in the earlier stages due to hairy cell leukemia, there are few who have symptoms similar to some other conditions like flu or common cold. These basic symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Pale skin
- Frequent infections
- Easy bruising or bleeding
- Frequent nosebleeds or bleeding from the gums
- Unexplained weight loss
Since the disease doesn’t show up any symptoms in the beginning, quite often it aggravates slowly and may lead to certain complications including:
- Increased infections due to the reduction of WBC
- Frequent bleeding from the nose or gums
Diagnosis And Treatment
On noticing any of the above signs and symptoms staying for more time than a normal viral infection, do consult a doctor right away to get diagnosed at the earliest. The doctor or hematologist usually does a thorough physical checkup, acknowledges the patient’s past exposure history to chemicals or radiation, and conducts some diagnostics. These include:
- Blood Test
- Bone Marrow Test
- Imaging tests like X-ray, CT-scan, MRI-scan and Ultrasounds
Since hairy cell leukemia is a chronic disorder and aggravates rapidly, it is necessary to treat it right away. The available treatment options include:
- Biological therapy or Immunotherapy