Lymphoma: Treatment, symptoms, and causes

Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system. It affects a type of white blood cells known as lymphocytes. These help fight disease in the body. They play an important role in the immune system.

This type of cancer starts in the white blood cells, or lymphocytes. As it is present in the bloodstream, it can spread, or metastasize, to different parts of the body.

Lymphoma can occur at any age, but it is one of the most common causes of cancer in children and young adults aged 15 to 24 years. It is often treatable.

In the United States, the lifetime risk of getting Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is 2.1 percent. The risk of getting Hodgkin lymphoma is around 0.2 percent.

Fast facts on lymphoma

Here are some key points about lymphoma. More detail is in the body of this article.

Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymph nodes and lymphatic system.

The two main types are Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin. Non-Hodgkin is the most common.

The main symptom is usually an enlargement of lymph nodes that does not go away as it normally would after infection.

There is no way to prevent lymphoma, but survival rates after treatment are good.


Swollen glands that do not go away can be a sign of lymphoma.
Swollen glands that do not go away can be a sign of lymphoma.

Treatment depends on the type of lymphoma and the stage it has reached.

Indolent, or slow-growing lymphoma may need only watchful waiting and no treatment.

If treatment is necessary, it can involve:

Biologic therapy: This is a drug treatment that stimulates the immune system to attack the cancer cells by inserting living microorganisms into the body.

Antibody therapy: Synthetic antibodies are inserted into the bloodstream to combat the cancer’s antigens.

Chemotherapy: Aggressive drug treatment is used to kills cancer cells.

Radioimmunotherapy: This delivers high-powered radioactive doses directly into the cancerous B-cells and T-cells to destroy them.

Radiation therapy: This is used to focus on small areas of cancer.

Stem-cell transplantation: This can restore damaged bone marrow following high-dose chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Steroids: These may be injected to treat lymphoma.

Surgery: This can be used to remove the spleen or other organs after the lymphoma has spread.

Surgery is used more often for obtaining a biopsy.


The signs and symptoms of lymphoma are similar to those of illnesses such as viral diseases and the common cold, but they continue for longer than would normally be expected.

Some people will have no symptoms, but some may notice a swelling of the lymph nodes. These are located all around the body, often in the neck, groin, abdomen, or armpits.

The swellings are normally painless, but pain may occur if the enlarged glands press on organs, bones, and other structures. This can be confused with back pain.

Lymph nodes can swell during common infections, such as a cold, but in lymphoma the swelling does not go away. Pain is also more likely to accompany the swelling if it is due to an infection.

The overlap of symptoms can lead to misdiagnosis.

Anyone who has ongoing swelling of the glands should see their doctor.

Other symptoms of both types of lymphoma may include:

ongoing fever without infection

night sweats, fever, and chills

weight loss and loss of appetite

unusual itching

persistent fatigue, unusual tiredness, or lack of energy

pain in lymph nodes after drinking alcohol

Additional symptoms that can indicate Non-Hodgkin lymphoma include:

persistent coughing

shortness of breath

pain or swelling of the abdomen

Pain, weakness, paralysis, or otherwise altered sensation can occur if an enlarged lymph node presses against spinal nerves or the spinal cord.

Lymphoma can spread rapidly from the lymph nodes to other parts of the body through the lymphatic system. As cancerous lymphocytes spread into other tissues, the body’s ability to fight infection weakens.

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Cancer happens when there is uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells that thrive and spread instead of dying as they would in the life cycle of a normal cell.

Lymphatic tissue is connected throughout the body. If cancer cells develop in the lymphatic system, they can spread easily from their original location to other tissues and organs, including those outside the system.

Lymphoma most often spreads to the liver, bone marrow, or lungs.

In Hodgkin lymphoma, the cancer usually affects one lymph node after another in order.

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