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Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma


Topic Overview

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Lymphomas are either Hodgkin's lymphomas or non-Hodgkin's lymphomas. Hodgkin's lymphomas have a type of cell called Reed-Sternberg cells. Lymphomas without these cells are non-Hodgkin's lymphomas. This topic is about non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL). To learn about Hodgkin's lymphoma, see the topic Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

What is non-Hodgkin's lymphoma?

Lymphoma is cancer that begins in the lymph system in white blood cells called lymphocytes. When these cells become abnormal, they don't protect the body from infection or disease. They also grow without control and may form lumps of tissue called tumors.

NHL can start almost anywhere in the body. It may start in a single lymph node, a group of lymph nodes, or an organ such as the spleenClick here to see an illustration.. Or it can spread to almost any part of the body, including the liver and bone marrow.

There are many types of NHL. Sometimes they are grouped as:

  • Slow-growing lymphomas, which spread slowly and cause few symptoms. These may also be called indolent or low-grade lymphomas.
  • Fast-growing lymphomas, which spread quickly and cause severe symptoms. These may also be called aggressive lymphomas and may be classified as intermediate-grade or high-grade.

Treatment can cure some people and may allow others to live for years. How long you live depends on the type of NHL you have and the stage of your disease (how far it has progressed).

What causes non-Hodgkin's lymphoma?

The cause of NHL is not known. The abnormal cell changes may be triggered by an infection or exposure to something in the environment. Or it may be linked to gene changes (mutations). NHL is not contagious.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of NHL include:

  • A painless swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck, underarm, or groin. This is the most common symptom.
  • Fever not caused by another health problem.
  • Night sweats.
  • Extreme fatigue.
  • Weight loss you can't explain.
  • Pain in the belly or back.

How is non-Hodgkin's lymphoma diagnosed?

Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask you questions about your health. The exam includes checking the size of your lymph nodes in your neck, underarm, and groin.

Your doctor will take a piece of body tissue (biopsy) to diagnose NHL. The tissue usually is taken from a lymph node. You may have other tests to find out what kind of NHL you have.

How is it treated?

Your treatment depends on the type of lymphoma you have, the stage of the disease, your age, and your general health. You may not need treatment until you have symptoms. NHL is usually treated with chemotherapy. Sometimes radiation or radiation with chemotherapy may be used. Or you may have targeted therapy with monoclonal antibodies.

If treatment doesn't work, or if NHL comes back after initial treatment, you may have chemotherapy along with a stem cell transplant.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about non-Hodgkin's lymphoma:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Ongoing concerns:

Living with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma:

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