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The blood and hairy cell leukaemia

Men and women discussing hairy cell leukaemia

This page is about a rare type of leukaemia called hairy cell leukaemia. There is information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

The blood and hairy cell leukaemia

Hairy cell leukaemia is a rare type of chronic leukaemia. Chronic leukaemia is leukaemia that develops slowly, over months or years. Under a microscope, the abnormal blood cells in hairy cell leukaemia have hair like outgrowths on their surfaces. This is where the name hairy cell comes from. 

The blood and blood cells

Leukaemia is a cancer of the blood forming system. Your body makes blood cells in the bone marrow, which is the soft inner part of your bones. Most types of leukaemia cause the bone marrow to make abnormal white blood cells. There are several different types of white cells. Hairy cell leukaemia develops from white cells called B lymphocytes.

How leukaemia affects you

White blood cells help fight infection. If your body is making abnormal white blood cells, they won’t work properly. So you may be more prone to infections. It is also more difficult to get rid of infections once you have them.

If you have too many white blood cells, they can overcrowd the bone marrow. So there is not enough space for the other types of blood cell, which are called red blood cells and platelets. Having too few red blood cells makes you tired and breathless (anaemic). And if you don’t have enough platelets, you can have bleeding problems. Abnormal white blood cells can also build up in your spleen, lymph nodes and liver.

 

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

 

 

Leukaemia and hairy cell leukaemia

There are several types of leukaemia. But doctors divide them into two main groups, based on the speed at which they develop

  • Acute leukaemia can develop very quickly
  • Chronic leukaemia can develop over months or years without causing many symptoms

Hairy cell leukaemia (HCL) is a rare type of chronic leukaemia. It develops slowly from white cells called B lymphocytes. When doctors look at the cells under a microscope, they have hair like outgrowths on their surfaces. This is where the name hairy cell comes from. Although often easier to treat, it is similar to other types of chronic leukaemia in how it develops and how it affects you.

If you have a different type of leukaemia then you need our information on the other types of leukaemia.

 

The blood and blood cells

Leukaemia is a cancer of the blood forming system. Most types of leukaemia cause the bone marrow to make abnormal white blood cells. These abnormal cells can get into the bloodstream and circulate around the body. To understand the effects of any type of leukaemia it helps to know

How you make blood cells

To understand how and why leukaemia affects you as it does, it helps to know more about blood cells.

Your body makes blood cells in the bone marrow. The bone marrow is the soft inner part of your bones. You make blood cells in a controlled way, as your body needs them.

All blood cells start as the same type of cell, called a stem cell. The stem cells then develop into

  • Myeloid stem cells, which become white blood cells called monocytes and neutrophils
  • Lymphoid stem cells, which become white blood cells called lymphocytes
  • Erythroblasts, which become red blood cells
  • Megakaryocytes, which become platelets

The diagram below helps to explain this.

Diagram showing how blood cells are made

White blood cells (leucocytes)

There are several different types of white cells in the blood. There are more of some types than others. They all play a part in the immune response – the response of the body to infection, or anything else the body recognises as foreign. These blood cells can be made very quickly and generally have a short life. Some only live for a few hours, others for a few days.

Red blood cells (erythrocytes)

Red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs around the body to the tissues. They give the blood its red colour.

Platelets (thrombocytes)

Platelets are very important in blood clotting. They clump together to form a plug if bleeding occurs. Then they release other chemicals that help the blood to clot and the blood vessel to be repaired.

 

How leukaemia affects you

White blood cells help fight infection. If your body is making abnormal white blood cells, they won’t work properly. So you may be more prone to infections. Having abnormal white blood cells also makes it more difficult to get rid of infections once you have them.

If you have too many white blood cells, they can overcrowd the bone marrow. So there is not enough space for normal red blood cells and platelets and you may have lower than normal numbers of these. Having too few red blood cells makes you tired and breathless (anaemic). And if you don’t have enough platelets, you can have bleeding problems.

Abnormal white blood cells can also build up in parts of the lymphatic system such as the spleen and lymph nodes. They can also build up in your liver. This can make your tummy (abdomen) swell and feel uncomfortable.

There is detailed information about the symptoms of hairy cell leukaemia in this section.

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Updated: 31 March 2015