Lymphoma

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What is lymphoma?

Lymphoma is a general name for a group of cancers of the blood that originate in the lymph glands. The lymph glands are organs of the immune system and are part of the body’s defense against infection and disease. Lymph glands are located throughout the body.

Lymphoma is the result of change or mutation in the infection-fighting white blood cells called lymphocytes, which are stored in the lymph glands. This change causes an uncontrolled growth of cancer cells that develop into malignant tumors in the lymph glands. Lymphoma can also originate within the central nervous system and within solid organs such as the stomach.

Lymphoma is a common cancer. As of 2010, about 628,415 people are living with lymphoma or are in remission, according to The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (Source: LLS).

There are many types of lymphoma. The two main categories are:

  • Hodgkin lymphoma (Hodgkin’s disease)Hodgkin's disease is less common and, if caught at the right stage, is easier to treat and cure than aggressive forms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a malignant proliferation of either T-lymphocytes, B-lymphocytes or their cellular predecessors. It is one of the most common types of cancer and one of the top cancer killers.

The prognosis for lymphoma varies depending on many factors, including the exact type of lymphoma and the stage of the disease when diagnosed. In general, lymphoma is most treatable and curable if caught in the earliest stages of the disease. Untreated or advanced lymphoma results in a proliferation of abnormal white blood cells (lymphocytes) that spread throughout the lymphatic system. These abnormal cells crowd out normal white blood cells. The abnormal white blood cells are not able to fight infections as effectively as the normal white blood cells, which results in increased infections.

The abnormal white blood cells of lymphoma also crowd out red blood cells, resulting in anemia, which is a low number of red blood cells. The abnormal white blood cells formed in lymphoma can also accumulate in the organs of the body, such as the spleen, liver and kidney and interfere with normal organ function.

Lymphoma can lead to life-threatening complications and death, especially if it is undetected and untreated. Seeking regular medical care offers the best chance of detecting lymphoma in its earliest, most curable stage. If you have lymphoma, following your treatment plan may help reduce your risk of serious complications.


What are the symptoms of lymphoma?

Symptoms of lymphoma can vary among individuals and differ depending on the specific type and stage of advancement of the disease.

Symptoms of lymphoma are generally caused by the high numbers of abnormal white blood cells that overcome the normal white blood cells and red blood cells. The abnormal white blood cells are not able to fight infection as effectively as the normal white blood cells, resulting in frequent infections. Lower numbers of red blood cells result in anemia and symptoms that include fatigue, shortness of breath, pale skin, and slow healing of wounds.

Lymphoma that has spread to the bone marrow also reduces the number of platelet cells, which are needed for normal clotting. This results in easy bleeding and bruising.

Symptoms of lymphoma include:

  • Anemia

  • Bone and joint pain

  • Easy bruising and bleeding

  • Fatigue, weakness and malaise

  • Fever

  • Loss of appetite

  • Night sweats

  • Pale skin (pallor)

  • Shortness of breath

  • Slow healing of wounds

  • Swollen lymph gland or glands (lymphadenopathy), which often appear first in the neck, groin or armpit. The swollen glands can also appear in other areas of the body.

  • Unexpected weight loss

What causes lymphoma?

The underlying cause of lymphoma is not known, but in some cases lymphoma develops in people who have weakened immune systems. This includes people taking immune-suppressing drugs for an organ transplant or people with HIV/AIDS.

Certain infections are associated with the development of lymphoma. These include infection with the Epstein-Barr virus, Helicobacter pylori bacteria, and the human T-cell lymphocytotropic virus (HTLV). There may also be a familial connection to developing lymphoma.

What are the risk factors for lymphoma?

A number of factors are thought to increase your chances of developing lymphoma. Not all people with risk factors will develop lymphoma, and people who do not have risk factors can develop lymphoma.

Risk factors for lymphoma include:

  • Family history of lymphoma

  • Helicobacter pylori infection

  • Human T-cell lymphocytotropic virus (HTLV) infection

  • Mononucleosis or Epstein-Barr virus infection

  • Weakened immune system, due to such factors as taking immune-suppressing drugs for an organ transplant, as treatment for other cancers, or having HIV infection or AIDS

  • Weakened immune system, due to such factors as taking immune-suppressing drugs for an organ transplant or having HIV infection or AIDS

How is lymphoma treated?

Treatment of lymphoma begins with seeking regular medical care throughout your life. Regular medical care allows a health care professional to best evaluate the risks of developing lymphoma and promptly order diagnostic testing for such symptoms as an enlarged lymph node. These measures greatly increase the chances of catching lymphoma in its earliest, most curable stage.

The goal of treatment of lymphoma is to cure the cancer or 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. 

Lymphoma treatment plans use a multifaceted approach that is individualized to the type and stage of advancement of lymphoma, and to your age, medical history, and coexisting diseases and conditions. Treatment of lymphoma is best delivered by a team of specialists in lymphoma care. These specialists include hematology oncologists, hematologists, and registered nurses who specialize in cancer and lymphoma care.

Lymphoma treatment may include some combination of the following:

  • Blood cell growth factors to increase the number of healthy white blood cells or red blood cells

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

  • Chemotherapy to attack cancer cells that grow and divide rapidly

  • Dietary counseling to help people with cancer maintain their strength and nutritional status

  • Palliative care to improve the overall quality of life for families and patients with serious diseases

  • Participation in a clinical trial that is testing promising new therapies and treatments for lymphoma may be recommended

  • Physical therapy to help strengthen the body, increase alertness, reduce fatigue, and improve functional ability during and after cancer treatment

  • Radiation therapy to attack cancer cells that grow and divide rapidly

  • Stem cell transplant to provide healthy new stem cells, which divide to make healthy new blood cells

Complementary treatments

Some complementary treatments may help some people better deal with lymphoma 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 lymphoma 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 lymphoma?

Complications of lymphoma are life threatening. Complications are caused by the rapid growth of abnormal white blood cells, which can spread throughout the lymphatic system and crowd out normal white blood cells that are needed to fight infection.

The abnormal white blood cells of lymphoma also crowd out red blood cells, which results in anemia due to a low number of red blood cells. The abnormal white blood cells formed in lymphoma can also accumulate in the organs of the body, such as the spleen, liver and kidney, and interfere with normal organ function.

Complications of lymphoma include:

  • Anemia

  • Frequent infections

  • Metastasis of cancer cells to other organs and organ dysfunction

  • Recurrence of lymphoma

You can best treat lymphoma and lower your risk of complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care team design specifically for you.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 18
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  2. Lymphoma. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/lymphoma.html
  3. Lymphoma. Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. http://www.lls.org/all_page?item_id=7030
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