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An Overview of Hairy Cell Leukemia

written by: CoDayDreamer • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 10/11/2010

Although typically treatable at all stages, the earlier that hairy cell leukemia is recognized the more medical intervention can occur. Knowing the signs and symptoms could assist you and your doctor with discovering hairy cell leukemia.

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    Overview

    Hairy cell leukemia develops when cells within the blood and bone marrow are not created properly within the body. The function of the bone marrow is to create blood cells. In hairy cell leukemia, the cells that are made in the marrow do not transform into white blood cells correctly. Instead, there are too many stem cells that turn into lymphocytes. Normally in the bone marrow there would be white blood cells but in hairy cell leukemia there is an abundance of lymphocytes. These lymphocytes take up the space that is needed by white blood cells. The name of the cancer is from the appearance of the cells as "hairy" when observed through a microscope.

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    Risk Factors

    Exposure to certain environmental factors may increase the risk of a patient having hairy cell leukemia. Exposure to chemicals like industrial chemicals may increase the likelihood; however, at this time, there are no definitive studies that have concluded this as a concrete risk factor. Another possible risk factor is exposure to sawdust. Once again, there is no definitive study at this time that has proved this as a definite risk factor. Exposure to radiation, such as x-ray machines or cancer treatment, is considered a risk factor. Whenever working with hazardous substances, it is always vital to use the necessary safety precautions to try to reduce the risk of exposure to these substances to lower risk factors for hairy cell leukemia as well as other diseases and conditions.

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    Signs and Symptoms

    Signs and symptoms of hairy cell leukemia are similar to those of other conditions. If there is a medical condition that a person has a concern about, it is best to discuss this concern with a physician. Signs and symptoms include fatigue, bruising easily, shortness of breath and unintentional weight loss. In addition, the feeling of having a full abdominal area and frequent infections may also be signs of hairy cell leukemia.

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    Tests

    When hairy cell leukemia is suspected, testing will occur to determine if it is in fact present.

    The primary form of testing will be a physical examination. This is an overall examination of the body by a physician. The examination is to find anything that is not typical for the patient. The physician will be checking for abnormalities like lumps. During the examination, the patient's history will be taken. This history will consist of personal habits, family history and past medical history.

    A bone marrow biopsy may be taken to view the appearance of the cells within the bone.

    Blood tests, such as complete blood count, may be ordered. Low platelets, white blood cells and red blood cells may indicate hairy cell leukemia.

    Computerized imaging, such as computerized tomography, may be utilized to view the spleen. A spleen that is enlarged may also indicate hairy cell leukemia.

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    Treatment

    Treatment of hairy cell leukemia may involve chemotherapy, biological treatment or surgery. There may be a combination of treatments that occur.

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    References

    Mayo Clinic: Hairy cell leukemia - http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hairy-cell-leukemia/DS00673

    National Cancer Institute: Hairy Cell Leukemia Treatment - http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/hairy-cell-leukemia/