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Lymphoma (cont.)

What Tests Do Doctors Use to Diagnose Lymphoma?

If a person has swelling or symptoms described in the Symptoms section, his or her health-care provider will ask many questions about the symptoms (when they began, recent illnesses, past or current medical problems, any medications, workplace, health history, family history, and habits and lifestyle). These questions are followed by a thorough examination.

If, after an initial interview and examination, the health-care provider suspects that a patient may have lymphoma, the patient will undergo a series of tests designed to provide further clarification. At some point in this workup, the patient might be referred to a specialist in blood diseases and cancer (hematologist/oncologist).

Blood tests

Blood is drawn for various tests.

  • Some of these tests evaluate the function and performance of blood cells and important organs, such as the liver and kidneys.
  • Certain blood chemicals or enzymes (lactate dehydrogenase [LDH]) may be determined. High levels of LDH in cases in which NHL is suspected may indicate a more aggressive form of the disorder.
  • Other tests may be done to learn more about lymphoma subtypes.


If there is a swelling (also called lump or mass), a sample of tissue from the swelling will be removed for examination by a pathologist. This is called a biopsy. Any of several methods can be used to obtain a biopsy of a mass.

  • Masses that can be seen and felt under the skin are relatively easy to biopsy. A hollow needle can be inserted into the mass and a small sample removed with the needle (called a core-needle biopsy). This is usually done in the health-care provider's office with a local anesthetic.
  • Core-needle biopsy does not always obtain a good-quality sample. For that reason, many health-care providers prefer a surgical biopsy. This involves removal of the entire swollen lymph node through a small incision in the skin. This procedure often is done with a local anesthetic, but it sometimes requires a general anesthetic.
  • If the mass is not immediately under the skin but is instead deep inside the body, access is somewhat more complicated. The tissue sample is usually obtained via laparoscopy. This means making a tiny incision in the skin and inserting a thin tube with a light and a camera on the end (a laparoscope). The camera sends pictures of the inside of the body to a video monitor, and the surgeon can see the mass. A small cutting tool on the end of the laparoscope can remove all or part of the mass. This tissue is withdrawn from the body with the laparoscope.
  • A pathologist (a physician who specializes in diagnosing diseases by looking at cells and tissues) examines the tissue sample with a microscope. The pathologist's report will specify whether the tissue is lymphoma and the type and subset of lymphoma.

Imaging studies

If there is no palpable mass in the presence of persistent symptoms, imaging studies will likely be carried out in order to determine whether a mass is present and, if so, how then to direct a biopsy.

  • X-rays: In certain parts of the body, such as the chest, a simple X-ray can sometimes detect lymphoma.
  • CT scan: This test provides a three-dimensional view and much greater detail and may detect enlarged lymph nodes and other masses anywhere in the body.
  • MRI scan: Similar to the CT scan, MRI gives three-dimensional images with excellent detail. MRI provides better definition than CT scan in certain parts of the body, especially the brain and the spinal cord.
  • Positron-emission tomographic (PET) scan: PET scan is a newer alternative to lymphangiogram and gallium scan for detecting areas in the body that are affected by lymphoma. A tiny amount of a radioactive substance is injected into the body and then traced on the PET scan. Sites of radioactivity on the scan indicate areas of increased metabolic activity, which implies the presence of a tumor.

Bone marrow examination

Most of the time, an examination of the bone marrow is necessary to see if the marrow is affected by the lymphoma. This is done by collecting a biopsy of the bone marrow.

  • Samples are taken, usually from the pelvis bone.
  • A pathologist examines the bone marrow under a microscope.
  • Bone marrow containing certain types of abnormal B or T lymphocytes confirms lymphoma.
  • Bone marrow biopsy can be an uncomfortable procedure, but it can usually be performed in a medical office. Most people receive pain medication prior to the procedure to make them more comfortable.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/11/2017

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