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Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma


Topic Overview

What is non-Hodgkin's lymphoma?

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL) is cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. The lymphatic system is found throughout the body. When you have this disease, cells in the lymphatic system either grow without control or do not die as cells normally do.

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

  • Aggressive lymphomas, which are also called intermediate-grade and high-grade lymphomas. These cancers tend to grow and spread quickly and cause severe symptoms.
  • Nonaggressive lymphomas, which are also called indolent or low-grade lymphomas. These tend to grow and spread quite slowly and cause few symptoms.

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is different from Hodgkin's lymphoma.

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 spleen. NHL can spread to almost any part of the body, including the liver and bone marrow.

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 how early it's diagnosed.

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. It 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.
  • Itchy skin.
  • Reddened patches on the skin.
  • A cough or shortness of breath.
  • 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. Your doctor also may do other test, including tests to see 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. The treatment options are:

  • Watchful waiting, which is being under your doctor's care but not yet getting treatment.
  • Radiation therapy, which is using high-dose X-rays to kill cancer cells.
  • Chemotherapy, which is using medicine to kill cancer cells.
  • Monoclonal antibody therapy, which can boost your body's natural defenses against disease, slow how fast the cancer grows, and carry radiation or medicines that kill cancer cells.
  • Stem cell transplant plus chemotherapy. A stem cell transplant replaces damaged bone marrow cells with healthy stem cells.

How do you deal with your emotions?

When you have cancer, you may feel confused, alone, and scared. Your loved ones may feel this way too. You are not alone. Others are facing the same struggles, and they know what you are going through. Many of them are feeling the same way.

To help yourself:

  • Get the support you need. Spend time with people who care about you, and let them help you. Talk to your hospital social worker if you need help with bills or have other worries. Your local American Cancer Society also may be helpful.
  • Take good care of yourself. Get plenty of rest, eat healthy meals, and get regular exercise.
  • Talk about your feelings, and find a support group. Other people who have NHL can help you, and your experience can help them.
  • Do everything you can to stay positive. Set a goal each day to do something special for yourself or someone else.

If your emotions are too much to handle, be sure to tell your doctor. You may be able to get counseling or other types of help.

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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