Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma: The Basics

OncoLink Team
Last Modified: August 9, 2016

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) is a cancer that affects the immune system and is sometimes referred to as a “blood cancer”. NHL begins in the lymph nodes and is made of up malignant (cancerous) lymphocytes (white blood cells). There are over 30 different types of NHL.

Risk Factors

The actual cause of NHL is not known, but there are some known risk factors:

  • Long-term increase or decrease in immune system function
  • Certain viruses and bacteria
  • Use of some pesticides and herbicides
  • Immune system depression from organ/bone marrow transplant, rheumatoid arthritis, inherited immune deficiencies, and infections, including HIV.

Screening

There are no screening tests for NHL.

Signs & Symptoms of NHL

The first sign of NHL is often swelling of the lymph nodes. Other symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Itchy Skin
  • Alcohol intolerance

Because there are many types of NHL, signs and symptoms depend on the type and the area of the body that is affected.

Diagnosis of NHL

When your healthcare provider suspects NHL, they will perform a complete health history and physical exam. A biopsy will be done of the enlarged lymph node, removing some cells or the entire lymph node. This biopsy will help determine the type of NHL.

Tests will be done to see if the extent of the cancer, which may include:

Staging for NHL

Staging for NHL is done based on the Ann Arbor Staging Classification, which ranges from stages I through IV:

  • Stage I: cancer is located in a single region.
  • Stage II: cancer is located in two separate lymph node regions on the same side of the diaphragm.
  • Stage III: cancer involves lymph nodes or organs on both sides of the diaphragm.
  • Stage IV: cancer has spread to multiple spots of an organ outside the lymph system OR cancer has spread to only one organ outside the lymph system, but lymph nodes far from that organ are involved OR bone marrow is involved.

Letters A, B, E and X can be added to each stage to represent the symptoms related to the diagnosis.

Treatment

NHL treatment is determined by the type of NHL and the stage of the cancer.

  • Chemotherapy is the most commonly used treatment. Chemotherapy is anti-cancer medications that target quickly-growing and dividing cells, such as NHL cells. If the NHL is affecting the tissues around your brain and spinal cord you may be given intrathecal chemotherapy, which is chemotherapy given directly into the spinal fluid.
  • Immunotherapy/Biologic Therapy uses the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells, in combination with medications, to kill cancer cells.
  • Radioimmunotherapy uses monoclonal antibodies and radiation to seek out tumor cells, attach to them, expose them to radiation, and destroy them.
  • Bone marrow and stem cell transplants use a patient’s own, or another person’s bone marrow or stem cells to help the patient recover after administration of high doses of chemotherapy.

This article is a basic guide to NHL. You can learn more about NHL diagnosis and treatment by using the link below.

All About Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

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