Lymphoma refers to a group of white blood cell cancers in the lymphatic system — the part of the immune system that includes the lymph vessels, lymph nodes, spleen, thymus and tonsils. The diseases can form tumors and are found in children, teens and adults, though some types are more common at certain ages. Learn more about lymphoma treatments

Hodgkin Vs. Non-Hodgkin

The two forms of lymphoma behave, spread and respond to treatment differently, and affect different white blood cells. Doctors examining the cancerous cells under a microscope look for an abnormal cell called a Reed-Sternberg, then make their classification:

  • Hodgkin Lymphoma (HL): Hodgkin lymphoma has the Reed-Sternberg cell and is named after discover of the disease. Thanks to advances, more than 75 percent of newly diagnosed cases are curable. The disease is more common among teenagers and young adults (10 to 15 percent of cases), as well as those over 55. It’s further broken down into types (classical is the most common) and subtypes.
  • Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL): Non-Hodgkin lymphoma does not have the Reed-Sternberg cell. The disease is further broken down based on the kind of white blood cell involved (85 percent of cases in B cells, 15 percent in T cells) and other characteristics. The types affecting children and adults are often very different. Also, some types grow slowly and don’t need immediate treatment, while others do. The three main types in children and teens grow quickly:
    • Lymphoblastic lymphoma
    • Burkitt lymphoma (small non-cleaved cell lymphoma)
    • Large cell lymphoma

Lymphoma Risk Factors

While we don’t know what causes most cases of lymphoma, there are risk factors that can increase your chances of developing the disease.

Risk Factors for Hodgkin Lymphoma

Risk factors for Hodgkin lymphoma include:

  • Age: The disease is more common from 15 to 40 (especially in the 20s), and again after 55.
  • Virus Infection: The risk is higher if you are infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or mononucleosis (mono), caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).
  • Family History: While most patients do not have a family history of the disease, having a close relative (parent or sibling) with it can increase your risk.
  • Inherited Diseases: Certain inherited immune system diseases can raise your risk.

Risk Factors for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

Risk factors for non-Hodgkin lymphoma include:

  • Age: While some types of the disease are more common in younger people, most cases occur in people over 60.
  • Gender: The risk is higher among men overall, but certain types are more common in women.
  • Race: Whites are more likely than African-Americans and Asian-Americans to develop the disease.
  • Chemical Exposure: Exposure to certain chemicals increases risk.
  • Suppressed Immune System: Taking immunosuppressant drugs after an organ transplant raises risk.
  • Certain Medical Conditions: Medical conditions that can increase risk include:
    • An inherited immune disorder like hypogammaglobulinemia or Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome
    • An autoimmune disease like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis or Sjögren syndrome
    • HIV/AIDS
    • Human T-lymphotrophic virus type I (HTLV-1) or Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)
    • Infections that chronically stimulate the immune system

Lymphoma Symptoms

Lymphoma symptoms include:

  • Unexplained fever
  • Painless lymph node swelling in the neck, underarm, groin, chest or stomach
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Night sweats
  • Fatigue
  • Itchy skin
  • Unexplained pain in the chest, abdomen or bones (adult NHL)
  • Trouble breathing (pediatric NHL)
  • Coughing (pediatric NHL)
  • Trouble swallowing (pediatric NHL)
  • Painless testicle lump or swelling (pediatric NHL)

Other symptoms can cause these problems, too, so it’s important to see a doctor.

Lymphoma Diagnosis

Successful lymphoma treatment depends on a complete and accurate diagnosis. Each of our patients receives a thorough evaluation so we can create an individualized plan. We diagnose lymphoma with:

  • History and Physical Examination: We complete a thorough examination and take a full personal and family medical history.
  • Blood and Urine Work: We may take blood and urine samples to test your complete blood count (CBC), blood chemistry and other factors.
  • Lymph Node Biopsy: We use a needle or an incision to remove all or part of a lymph node, then examine the sample with a microscope.

We may use additional tools to determine if the cancer has spread:

  • CT (CAT) Scan: Computed tomography takes a series of X-rays from different angles, then stitches them together into 3D images.
  • MRI: Magnetic resonance imaging uses a powerful magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed 3D images at higher contrast than CT scans — useful for clarifying other test results.
  • PET Scan and CT: After a substance called radionuclide glucose is injected into one of your veins, a positron emission tomography scanner rotates around your body and creates a map of cancer cells, which take in more glucose and show up brighter. The test is combined with a CT scan.
  • Bone Marrow Biopsy: We use a hollow needle to remove a small sample of bone marrow, blood and bone from the hipbone or breastbone. The samples are studied under a microscope and may get other testing, including analysis for genetic changes.
  • Laparotomy/Laparoscopy: The organs inside the abdomen are checked for disease, using either one larger incision (laparotomy) or smaller incisions and special tools (laparoscopy). Diseased tissue or organs may get removed, or samples taken for examination with a microscope.
  • Mediastinoscopy: An incision is made at the top of the breastbone, and a thin, lighted instrument (mediastinoscope) is inserted to check for abnormal tissue in the organs, tissues, and lymph nodes between the lungs. We may remove tissue or lymph node samples.
  • Ultrasound: Sound waves create a picture of the suspicious area.

We continue to make strides against treating lymphoma. Learn more about our blood cancer treatments:

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Related Resources

Learn more about hematological disorders and blood cancer care at MedStar Georgetown: