Hairy Cell Leukaemia

What is hairy cell leukaemia?

Hairy cell leukaemia is a rare form of leukaemia, which is a type of cancer that affects the body's blood cell production. Hairy cell leukaemia is a chronic form of leukaemia, meaning that the disease develops gradually over a period of time. The name 'hairy cell' comes from the appearance of the leukaemia cells, which look like they have hair projections when under a microscope. Hairy cell leukaemia affects white blood cells called B lymphocytes. Around 190 new cases of hairy cell leukaemia are diagnosed in England, Scotland and Wales every year.

What are the causes of hairy cell leukaemia?

The cause of hairy cell leukaemia is unknown and there are only two risk factors: age and gender. Hairy cell leukaemia often affects people over the age of 30 and it is more common in males than females.

Symptoms of hairy cell leukaemia

In many cases, hairy cell leukaemia does not cause symptoms. However, some people do develop symptoms and these tend to become more noticeable as time goes by. They include:

  • Tiredness: this is caused by anaemia (too few red blood cells)
  • Bleeding and bruising easily
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Increased vulnerability to infections

How is hairy cell leukaemia diagnosed?

If you feel unwell or you develop relevant symptoms you should see your GP. They will ask questions, perform an examination and order blood or urine tests. If your GP thinks you may have hairy cell leukaemia they will refer you to a specialist haematologist for further tests. The tests, which will be carried out in hospital, may include blood tests, an ultrasound scan and a CT scan. The results of the tests will then be used to attain a firm diagnosis.

What treatments are available for hairy cell leukaemia?

Treatment depends on many aspects, including the phase of cancer, whether the cancer has spread, your age and your general health. Treatments that may be used for hairy cell leukaemia include chemotherapy (this is the main treatment), surgery and radiotherapy. You may just have one treatment or a combination of treatments.

What is the outlook for hairy cell leukaemia?

Hairy cell leukaemia usually develops very slowly and this means it can usually be controlled effectively. People with HCL usually go into remission, which means they have spells with no symptoms. The outlook for people with hairy cell leukaemia depends on the stage of cancer and how the cancer reacts to treatment. Around 96 percent of people diagnosed with HCL will live for at least 10 years after diagnosis.

Living with hairy cell leukaemia

Being able to accept that you have hairy cell leukaemia will never be a simple matter and you will likely experience a conflict of emotions. If you need help, support or more information about your condition, you can contact one of the UK's cancer charities.

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