Symptoms of hairy cell leukaemia | Cancer Research UK
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Symptoms of hairy cell leukaemia

Usually people with hairy cell leukaemia (HCL) have mild symptoms at first that build up slowly and include  

  • Tiredness and breathlessness because of low levels of red blood cells (anaemia)
  • Frequent infections due to low levels of white blood cells – if you have an uncontrolled infection, you may have very high temperatures and sweats

Some people may also have other symptoms such as

  • Bleeding and bruising due to low levels of platelets – you may have nosebleeds, unexplained bruising or unusually heavy periods
  • Swollen abdomen – an enlarged spleen is quite common and can make your tummy (abdomen) uncomfortable or painful
  • Weight loss – the leukaemia itself uses up energy, so you may lose weight, even if you are eating normally

Occasionally people with HCL don't have any symptoms. Their doctors might find it during a routine blood test for something else. 

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the About hairy cell leukaemia section.

 

 

About hairy cell leukaemia symptoms

Because hairy cell leukaemia (HCL) is a type of chronic leukaemia, symptoms tend to be mild at first and build up slowly. Occasionally people with HCL don’t have any symptoms and their doctors might find it during a routine blood test for something else.

 

Tiredness, because of anaemia

Anaemia happens if your bone marrow becomes crowded by abnormal white cells and can’t produce enough red blood cells. Red cells normally help to carry oxygen around the body. If you have anaemia you may feel breathless and tired.

 

Frequent infections

As the numbers of abnormal white blood cells rises, you may pick up infections more easily. This is because abnormal white blood cells are not as good at fighting infection as healthy ones. If you have an uncontrolled infection, you may have very high temperatures and sweats.

 

Bleeding or bruising easily

The extra white blood cells take up more space in the bone marrow as their numbers rise. There is not enough room for platelets to be made. These normally help to clot the blood, so you may have nosebleeds, unexplained bruising or unusually heavy periods.

 

Swelling and pain in your tummy (abdomen)

With hairy cell leukaemia an enlarged spleen is quite common. The spleen is an organ on the left of your body, just under your ribs. If it becomes bigger than normal, it can make your abdomen uncomfortable or painful. Your doctor may be able to feel your spleen. Sometimes leukaemia cells also build up in the liver which can also make your abdomen swell.

Diagram showing the position of the spleen

 

Weight loss

Hairy cell leukaemia itself uses up energy that your body would otherwise use or store. So you may lose weight, even if you are eating normally. An enlarged spleen may also contribute to weight loss by squashing your stomach. This can make you feel full more quickly than usual, so you eat less than you normally would.

 

What to do if you have these symptoms

If you have any of these symptoms you must get them checked by your GP. But remember, they can all be caused by other conditions. Most people with these symptoms don’t have leukaemia.

 

More information

The earlier a cancer is picked up, the easier it is to treat it and the more likely the treatment is to be successful. So it is important that you go to your GP as soon as possible if you notice worrying symptoms.

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Updated: 31 March 2015