Hodgkin's Disease

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What is Hodgkin’s disease?

Hodgkin’s disease is a type of lymphoma, a cancer that starts in immune cells of the lymphatic system, which includes the lymph nodes, lymph vessels, lymphatic fluid, tonsils, thymus, spleen, and lymphoid tissue of the digestive tract. Hodgkin’s disease can occur nearly anywhere in the body, but among younger patients it is found in the upper body more often than in the lower body. Another name for it is Hodgkin lymphoma.

The cause of Hodgkin’s disease is not known, but infection with certain viruses seems to increase the risk of developing it, as does having a weakened immune system. Having a family history of Hodgkin’s disease also seems to increase the risk. It occurs most frequently in people around the age of 20 and again around age 65. Each year in the United States, about 8,500 people are diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, most of them young adults (Source: ACS).

Symptoms often resemble those of a cold or flu and include enlarged lymph nodes, fevers, chills, night sweats, fatigue, and a general ill feeling. To make a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s disease, either a biopsy or surgical removal of an enlarged lymph node can determine whether the cancer is present.

With appropriate treatment, Hodgkin’s disease is often curable or controllable for many years.

People who have Hodgkin’s disease can develop serious infections. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of the following symptoms: severe sweating, severe difficulty breathing, pale or blue lips, fast heart rate (tachycardia), confusion, high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), loss or change in level of consciousness, or anxiety.

Seek prompt medical care if you have experienced unexpected weight loss, persistent fever, frequent infections, night sweats, tiredness, bone pain, enlarged lymph nodes, or flu-like symptoms that last longer than two weeks.


What are the symptoms of Hodgkin’s disease?

Many of the symptoms of Hodgkin lymphoma resemble those of a cold or flu, although the disease may not lead to any symptoms.

Common symptoms of Hodgkin lymphoma

Symptoms of Hodgkin’s disease include:

  • Abdominal pain or fullness, especially in the upper abdomen

  • Fatigue

  • Enlarged liver and glands, such as the spleen and lymph nodes

  • Fever and chills

  • Frequent infections

  • Itching feeling

  • Increased sensitivity to the effects of alcohol, potentially including pain in the lymph nodes after drinking

  • Night sweats

  • Unexplained weight loss

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, Hodgkin’s disease can be life threatening, especially if severe infections occur or if enlarged lymph nodes or collections of fluid interfere with the function of vital organs. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of the following life-threatening symptoms:


What causes Hodgkin’s disease?

The specific cause of Hodgkin lymphoma is not known, but a number of factors are associated with its development. The risk is increased with certain types of viral infections and in siblings of those with Hodgkin’s disease. Hodgkin’s disease, however, is not contagious.

What are the risk factors for Hodgkin’s disease?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing Hodgkin lymphoma. Not all people with risk factors will get Hodgkin lymphoma. Hodgkin risk factors include:

  • Age between 15 and 35 years and over 55 years

  • Compromised immune system due to such conditions as HIV/AIDS or other immunodeficiencies, taking corticosteroids, medications for organ transplant, or cancer and cancer treatment

  • Family history of Hodgkin’s disease

  • History of infectious mononucleosis, also called mono, which is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)

  • Living in the United States, Canada, or the northern part of Europe


How is Hodgkin’s disease treated?

Goal of cancer treatment

The goal of Hodgkin lymphoma treatment is to permanently cure the cancer or to bring about a complete remission of the disease. Remission means that there is no longer any sign of the disease in the body, although it may recur or relapse later.

Regular visits with your medical care team are important so that progression or relapse can be identified early and to watch for and treat any complications that might result from the disease or its treatments.

Common treatments for Hodgkin lymphoma

Several different therapies are available to treat Hodgkin lymphoma including:

  • Chemotherapy to attack cancer cells

  • Participation in a clinical trial testing promising new treatments for Hodgkin lymphoma

  • Radiation therapy to attack cancer cells

  • Stem cell transplant to provide healthy stem cells that can make healthy new blood cells

Other treatments for Hodgkin lymphoma

Other therapies may be added to help with your general state of health and any complications of the cancer or its treatment including:

  • Antinausea medications if needed

  • Blood transfusions to temporarily replace blood components (such as red blood cells or platelets) that have been reduced or lost

  • Dental care to manage symptoms that occur in the mouth due to chemotherapy

  • Dietary counseling to help maintain strength and nutritional status

  • Pain medications if needed to increase comfort

  • Vaccinations to prevent diseases like the flu and pneumonia

Complementary treatments

Some complementary treatments may help some people to better deal with Hodgkin’s disease and its treatments. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.

Complementary treatments may include:

  • Acupuncture

  • Massage therapy

  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products

  • Yoga

Hospice care

In cases in which Hodgkin’s disease has progressed to an advanced stage and has become unresponsive to treatment, the goal of treatment may shift away from curing the disease and focus on measures to keep a person comfortable and maximize the quality of life. Hospice care involves medically controlling pain and other symptoms while providing psychological and spiritual support as well as services to support the patient’s family.

What are the potential complications of Hodgkin’s disease?

With proper treatment, Hodgkin lymphoma can often be cured or controlled for many years. However, complications of untreated or poorly controlled disease can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you.

Complications of Hodgkin lymphoma include:

  • Adverse effects of anticancer therapy

  • Airway obstruction (blockage of the airways, which can make it difficult to breathe normally)

  • Compression of the spinal cord

  • Immune deficiency and frequent infections

  • Obstruction of blood return to the heart

  • Pericardial tamponade (accumulation of fluid in the sac that surrounds the heart, making it difficult for the heart to function normally)

  • Peripheral neuropathy (disorder that causes dysfunction of nerves that lie outside your brain and spinal cord)

  • Spread of cancer

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Dec 7
  1. Hodgkin disease. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/HodgkinDisease/DetailedGuide/hodgkin-disease-what-is-hodgkin-disease
  2. What you need to know about Hodgkin lymphoma. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/hodgkin
  3. Siegel R, Naishadham D, Jemal A. Cancer statistics, 2013. CA Cancer J Clin 2013; 63:11.
  4. Bope ET, Kellerman RD (Eds.) Conn’s Current Therapy. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2013.
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