Treating Hairy Cell Leukemia

Hairy cell leukemia (HCL) tends to be slow growing. Patients without symptoms often don't need to be treated right away, but they do need to have careful follow-up exams. These are done every few months to check for disease progression and appearance of symptoms. Some patients with HCL live for many years without having any symptoms or receiving any treatment.

Treatment may be advised for HCL patients with low blood cell counts, recurrent infections, or an enlarged spleen or lymph nodes. Treatment is most often with one of the purine analog drugs -- either cladribine (2-CdA) or pentostatin. Up to 80% to 90% of patients respond to these drugs, and the responses last more than 5 years in most patients.

If the leukemia comes back again, it will most be often treated with a purine analog again. Often the same drug will be used as was given the first time, especially if the leukemia stayed in remission for a long time. Sometimes the monoclonal antibody rituximab (Rituxan) will be given as well.

In rare cases, HCL may not respond to chemotherapy. Rituximab or interferon-alfa, a type of biologic therapy, may be helpful. If a patient is uncomfortable because of an enlarged spleen, removing the spleen by surgery (splenectomy) can often help relieve pain or other symptoms.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: January 6, 2015 Last Revised: April 11, 2016

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