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Lymphoma: What is Lymphoma?

The Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention of Lymphoma

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Updated May 20, 2014

Lymphoma is a type of cancer that affects our lymphatic system. There are main groups of lymphoma: Hodgkin's lymphoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. These two groups encompass about 30 different types of lymphoma.

Lymphoma develops in the lymphatic system, part of the immune system that helps filter out bacteria and fight disease. Most of us are familiar with the term lymph nodes, and they can become swollen in normal situations at any time in our lives — usually when we are sick or have an infection. When the cells in the lymph nodes begin to multiply rapidly, become malignant, and the developing condition is lymphoma.

Hodgkin's Lymphoma and Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma

There are two main groups of lymphoma: Hodgkin's lymphoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is a term that encompasses a variety of cancers affecting the immune system. There are more than twenty different types of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.


Another type of lymphoma, Hodgkin's lymphoma, affects lymph tissue in the lymphatic system but can spread to the lungs, bone marrow and blood.

Causes and Risk Factors of Lymphoma

Unfortunately, researchers cannot exactly pinpoint what causes lymphoma. They have, however, identified risk factors for the disease. In general, lymphoma can develop in anyone, whether or not you display some of the risk factors attributed to the disease. Though there are factors that have been found in people with lymphoma, having some or none of the factors does not determine that a person will or will not develop the cancer.

Age. Lymphoma can develop in both children and adults, but the majority of people diagnosed are usually older than the age of 60. Many cases where children have developed the disease is when they have a pre-existing immune system deficiency.

Weak immune system. Other illnesses or diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, weaken the immune system and can make the body more susceptible to lymphoma.

Family history. Although rare, certain inherited lymphoma syndromes do exist, increasing the likelihood of developing lymphoma.

Infections. Illnesses, such as HIV/AIDS, Epstein-Barr virus, Hepatitis C and Helicobacter pylori, are all factors that can increase the risk of developing lymphoma.

Studies are now being done to see if there is a relationship between obesity and certain herbicides and chemicals in the development of lymphoma.

Radiation. People exposed to high levels of radiation, such as survivors of nuclear reactor accidents and atomic bombs, are at an increased risk for developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. People who also had previous radiation therapy are also at a higher risk for lymphoma.

Symptoms of Lymphoma

General symptoms of lymphoma include swelling of a lymph node, unintended weight loss, fatigue, night sweats, fevers and feeling itchy without an apparent cause.

Diagnosis of Lymphoma

Lymphoma is normally suspected during routine examinations or, in some cases, when a person feels a swollen lymph node that does not go away or returns. A person may experience other symptoms of lymphoma that prompt them to see a doctor.

To make a diagnosis of lymphoma, a series of medical tests are performed to confirm a suspicion of lymphoma. Ultimately, it is a biopsy that will determine the presence or absence of cancer. A biopsy is the removal of a small amount of tissue to be studied later under a microscope. People who are suspected to have lymphoma will undergo a lymph node biopsy

A biopsy sample will also determine the type of lymphoma, if cancer is present, based on how the cells look under a microscope. After the type has been defined, more tests will need to be done to determine how far the cancer has spread. This is called "staging" and may involve:
  • imaging tests, such as x-rays or CT scans
  • Gallium scan or PET scan
  • bone marrow test

Treatment of Lymphoma

Treatment plans weigh heavily on the type of lymphoma and the stage. There are four standard methods of lymphoma treatment:


Treatment of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma usually includes chemotherapy and radiation therapy. In some cases, a combination of both are used to treat the disease.

Hodgkin's lymphoma treatment varies among the more than twenty types of the disease. Chemotherapy is the standard treatment for most types, but other types of treatment may also be needed.

Lymphoma Prevention

While there are certain recognized risk factors for developing lymphoma, the cause for both Hodgkin's and Non-Hodgkin's lymphomas has yet to be determined. Research indicates that many patients diagnosed with lymphoma do not have any increased lymphoma risk factors used to determine the cause of the disease. Since it is not yet known what causes lymphoma, there is no general way to prevent it. Avoiding the lymphoma risk factors, such as smoking, can be helpful in reducing your risk of the disease. There are some risk factors, such as family history or age, which cannot be avoided. Keep in mind that just because you have a risk factor for lymphoma, this does not a guarantee that you will develop it. It only means you have an increased chance of developing lymphoma.
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