Hairy cell leukemia is a condition in which the bone marrow begins to produce large numbers of abnormal white blood cells called lymphocytes. These abnormal white blood cells cannot perform properly and do not protect the body from infection.
These abnormal cells do reproduce rapidly and eventually take up much of the room needed by the healthy blood cells in the body to perform their functions. As the levels of abnormal white blood cells increase and the levels of healthy blood cells decreases, serious side effects of the condition begin to appear and medical treatment will be needed. The condition is considered chronic and there is no known cure.
Hairy cell leukemia obtained its name because the abnormal white blood cells produced by the body look like they have tiny hairs surrounding them when viewed beneath a microscope. These small hairs are actually projections called villi that help the abnormal cells move throughout the blood stream.
Researchers are unsure of the exact cause of the DNA defect that causes hairy cell leukemia to develop, but there have been numerous risk factors identified that may contribute to the development of the condition. There have been individuals that have developed the condition without being exposed to any of the risk factors and there are some individuals that have been exposed to multiple risk factors but have not developed the condition.
There is no way to predict who will develop hairy cell leukemia and there is no method known that can prevent the condition from occurring.
One of the risk factors found to contribute to the development of hairy cell leukemia is a family history of cancer. In rare cases, multiple members of a blood line develop hairy cell leukemia which leads to the belief that some cases of hairy cell leukemia are passed down genetically.
Because of the rarity of the condition and the small number of individuals that may have obtained the DNA mutation that causes the condition this way, it is not currently possible to prove that hairy cell leukemia is a genetic disorder. Individuals of a certain heritage, called Ashekenazi Jewish heritage, have a higher incidence of developing hairy cell leukemia than the general population.
Individuals that have been exposed to chemotherapy or radiation therapy in the treatment of other cancers also have an increased risk of developing hairy cell leukemia. The development of hairy cell leukemia has also been linked to exposure to high levels of certain industrial chemicals, such as benzene.
Benzene is a known carcinogen that is used in great amounts in a large number of industries, such as the petroleum industry, the manufacturing industry, and the agriculture industry. Workers in these industries that have been exposed to high levels of benzene for a long period of time have a greatly increased risk of developing some types of cancers, including hairy cell leukemia.
Between 600 and 800 individuals are diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia each year. The condition progresses slowly and there are many treatments available that can effectively manage the disorder. In fact, many individuals manage the condition for up to 10 years effectively with the use of current treatments.
The goal of treatment is to bring hairy cell leukemia into remission and alleviate the symptoms caused by the disorder. By using proper medical techniques and constant observation for complications, the condition can be managed effectively and the health of the patient preserved.
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