What is non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma?

Unlike some cancers, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma isn’t a single disease. The term describes a group of blood cancers that all develop in the same place in your body. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a type of cancer that affects your lymphatic system.

Your lymphatic system is an important part of your immune system. It's a network of vessels and tissues called nodes that filter things out of your blood, such as waste products and blood cells that fight off infections. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is one of two types of cancer that can happen in your lymphatic system. It starts when white blood cells called lymphocytes mutate, meaning they start growing out of control.

Common related conditions
Blood Cancer Hodgkin's Lymphoma

Causes of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma

There’s no single cause that doctors link to this disease. Doctors will diagnose around 74,600 new cases in 2018, according to the American Cancer Society's estimates. The average risk of developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is one in 47. Your personal risk may differ depending on your risk factors.

Risk factors for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma

Having certain other conditions can put you at higher risk of getting this type of cancer. These conditions include:

  • Psoriasis
  • Celiac disease
  • Family history of lymphoma
  • Exposure to chemicals such as weed killers
  • Genetic syndromes such as Down syndrome
  • Viruses such as Epstein Barr, hepatitis and HIV
  • Aging — the older you are, the higher your risk
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease
  • History of taking drugs that suppress your immune system
  • Bacterial infections that cause gastric ulcers or Lyme disease
  • Immune system disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis or Sjogren's syndrome

Symptoms of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

The symptoms of this type of cancer can be hard to define. They're also like those you might experience with less-serious diseases.

Common signs include:

  • Fever
  • Itching or rashes
  • Not feeling hungry
  • Excessive tiredness
  • Pain in your stomach
  • Extreme night sweats
  • Feeling bloated or full
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Swelling in your spleen or liver
  • Swelling in at least one lymph node without pain

Diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

If you’re experiencing any symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor will review your medical history and do a physical exam, as well as check for swelling in your lymph nodes, spleen or liver.

Other tests that help diagnose non-Hodgkin's lymphoma include:

  • Blood and urine tests to rule out other conditions
  • Bone marrow tests to look for disease inside your bones
  • A biopsy to confirm cancer and figure out the type of lymphoma it is
  • Images such as CT scans, MRIs or PET scans so your doctor can look for tumors in these pictures of the inside of your body

Treatments for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Before deciding on treatment, your doctor will figure out the stage of the cancer. The stages tell your doctor how much the cancer has grown in or spread around your body.

  • In stage I, only one lymph node region is affected.
  • In stage II, the cancer has either affected two areas of lymph nodes or it has also affected an organ.
  • In stage III, the cancer has spread to nodes in your upper and lower body.
  • In stage IV, cancer cells are in multiple tissues and organs.

Once you know what stage your cancer is, you and your doctor can talk about how to treat the disease. If you have a slowly growing form, you might not need to treat it right away. Your doctor might recommend that you keep an eye on things instead — this is called "watchful waiting." If you do need treatment, your options might be:

  • Bone marrow transplants or stem cell transplants
  • Chemotherapy drugs given to you in an injection or by mouth
  • Radiation therapy, which uses powerful beams of energy to kill the cancer
  • Immunotherapy medications that help your immune system fight off the cancer

Recovery from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Treatment can often kill this cancer. For some people, the disease may never go away. In these cases, you need to continue treatment to keep the disease from growing. In either case, recovering from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma involves regular doctor visits to keep an eye on your system.

The five-year survival rate for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma hovers around 70 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. But it’s important to remember that the survival rates only tell part of the story. Your recovery and prognosis depend on many factors.

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