Treatments and drugs

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Treatment isn't always necessary for people with hairy cell leukemia. Because this cancer progresses very slowly and sometimes doesn't progress at all, some people prefer to wait to treat their cancer only if it causes signs and symptoms. The majority of people with hairy cell leukemia eventually need treatment.

If your hairy cell leukemia causes signs and symptoms, you may decide to undergo treatment. There is no cure for hairy cell leukemia. But treatments are effective at putting hairy cell leukemia in remission for years.


Doctors consider chemotherapy drugs the first line of treatment for hairy cell leukemia. The great majority of people will experience complete or partial remission through the use of chemotherapy.

Two chemotherapy drugs are used in hairy cell leukemia:

  • Cladribine. Treatment for hairy cell leukemia typically begins with cladribine. You receive a continuous infusion of the drug into a vein over several days.

    Most people who receive cladribine experience a complete remission that can last for several years. If your hairy cell leukemia returns, you can be treated with cladribine again. Side effects of cladribine may include infection and fever.

  • Pentostatin (Nipent). Pentostatin causes remission rates similar to cladribine, but it's given on a different schedule. People who take pentostatin receive infusions every other week for three to six months. Side effects of pentostatin may include fever, nausea and infection.

Biological treatments

Biological therapy attempts to make cancer cells more recognizable to your immune system. Once your immune system identifies cancer cells as intruders, it can set about destroying your cancer.

Two types of biological treatments are used in hairy cell leukemia:

  • Interferon. Currently, the role of interferon in hairy cell leukemia treatment is limited. You might receive interferon if chemotherapy hasn't been effective or if you can't take chemotherapy.

    Most people experience partial remission with interferon, which is taken for a year. Side effects include flu-like symptoms, such as fever and fatigue.

  • Rituximab (Rituxan). Rituximab is a monoclonal antibody approved to treat non-Hodgkin lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia, though it's sometimes used in hairy cell leukemia.

    If chemotherapy drugs haven't worked for you or you can't take chemotherapy, your doctor might consider rituximab. Side effects of rituximab include fever and infection.


Surgery to remove your spleen (splenectomy) might be an option if your spleen ruptures or if it's enlarged and causing pain. Though removing your spleen can't cure hairy cell leukemia, it can usually restore normal blood counts.

Splenectomy isn't commonly used to treat hairy cell leukemia, but it may be helpful in certain situations. Any surgery carries a risk of bleeding and infection.

March 17, 2015