Skip to main content
Avg ER Wait
Checking ER Wait Time
The feed could not be reached
Cartersville Medical Center

Hairy Cell Leukemia


Hairy cell leukemia (HCL) is a rare form of cancer. It involves white blood cells called B lymphocytes. White blood cells protect the body from infection. HCL gets its name from the tiny hair-like projections that stick out of the surface of these cancer cells. Illness results from the build up of these cancer cells in the bone marrow and spleen.

White Blood Cells
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


Cancer occurs when cells in the body become abnormal. They divide without control or order. Leukemia is cancer of the white blood cells and their parent cells. Leukemia cells do not function normally. In this case, they can not fight infections. This means that the person is more likely to become infected with viruses or bacteria. The cancerous cells also overgrow the bone marrow. This forces other normal cells, like platelets out. Platelets are needed to help the blood clot. As a result, people with leukemia may bleed more easily.

The exact cause of HCL is unknown, but it may be linked to a genetic mutation.

Risk Factors

HCL occurs more often in men. It also occurs more often in people over the age of 50.


HCL usually develops slowly over time. Early on, there may not be any symptoms.

In those that have them, symptoms may include:

  • Abdominal swelling
  • Fever
  • Easy bruising
  • Night sweats
  • Swollen lymph nodes


You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

Your bodily fluids and tissues may be tested. This can be done with:

Images may be taken of your bodily structures with a CT scan .


HCL is a slow-growing cancer. As HCL progresses, treatment may include:

  • Surgery— A splenectomy may need to be done to remove an enlarged spleen.
  • Chemotherapy —This is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It may be given in many forms. This includes pill, injection, and via a catheter. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body.
  • Medications, such as cladribine, pentostatin, and interferon, are used to fight the hairy cells.
  • Blood transfusion —A blood transfusion may be done to treat anemia.
  • Antibiotics or other medications to fight infection.


There are no guidelines for preventing HCL because the exact cause is unknown.

Revision Information

  • American Cancer Society

  • The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society

  • BC Cancer Agency

  • Canadian Cancer Society

  • Hairy cell leukemia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated October 5, 2012. Accessed November 26, 2013.

  • Hairy cell leukemia. The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society website. Available at: Accessed November 26, 2013.

  • Hairy cell leukemia treatment (PDQ). National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Updated October 30, 2013. Accessed November 26, 2013.

The health information in this Health Library is provided by a third party. Cartersville Medical Center does not in any way create the content of this information. It is provided solely for informational purposes. It does not constitute medical advice and is not intended to be a substitute for proper medical care provided by a physician. Always consult with your doctor for appropriate examinations, treatment, testing, and care recommendations. Do not rely on information on this site as a tool for self-diagnosis. If you have a medical emergency, call 911.