It’s so rare that doctors only diagnose 600 to 800 cases in the United States each year. It affects more males than females and tends to appear in the middle years or even later in life.
According to the Mayo Clinic, medical professionals aren’t really sure what causes hairy cell leukemia. The disease has no cure and is considered a chronic condition that with treatment can go into remission for extended periods. It’s considered a disease of the blood and the bone marrow.
Mutations in a patient’s DNA spur his or her bone marrow stem cells to produce an overabundance of white blood cells that don’t function correctly. These atypical B cells looks hairy under a microscope, giving the condition its odd name. Certain risk factors might be associated with the cause of these DNA mutations:
Family history. Patients with hairy cell leukemia might belong to family with other incidences of this disease. The family history could also include cases of other cancers of the blood.
Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. Men with an Ashkenazi Jewish background are at an elevated risk for this type of leukemia.
Prior incidence of cancer. Patients who have previously experienced another type of cancer have a risk factor for contracting hairy cell leukemia.
Radiation exposure. Individuals whose occupations put them into contact with X-ray or other type of medical equipment that emits ionizing radiation could have an elevated risk for the relevant DNA mutations. The studies conducted so far tend to contradict each other about this, however.
Exposure to chemicals. Certain chemicals could play a role in causing hairy cell leukemia. Of particular interest are those used in petroleum and agricultural products. Studies of their potential cause have been inconclusive to date, however.
Sawdust exposure. Some research studies have concluded there is a link between working with wood products and sawdust and the development of hairy cell leukemia.
In late 2009, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseke announced plans to add hairy cell leukemia to the growing list of illnesses linked to Agent Orange, a defoliant widely used during the Vietnam War. The decision to add this condition to the list was the result of a report by the U.S. Institute of Medicine. The Institute announced that this move should make it much easier for thousands of U.S. veterans to claim their health problems were caused by their military service. This in turn should help them pursue monthly disability payments and health care services from the Department of Veterans Affairs.