Lymphoma is a cancer that starts in cells that are part of the immune system. The type of lymphoma you have and how it is staged (how far the cancer has spread) affects your treatment options and outlook.
Most people who have lymphoma are diagnosed at some point in their lives. But each year, the treatments for lymphoma improve and more people are living longer. This is a positive trend, but it is important to know what you can do to reduce your risk of developing this disease.
Some people with slow-growing lymphomas never need treatment. This is called watchful waiting. Other patients need more intensive treatment, including chemotherapy, radiation and sometimes a bone marrow or stem cell transplant.
Your doctor will diagnose lymphoma based on your symptoms and what is seen in your physical exam. He or she will also do blood tests and an imaging test, such as an MRI scan, CT scan or PET scan, to check for cancer cells in your body.
Blood tests can show signs of a problem with your immune system, such as having too few healthy white blood cells. But they don’t usually detect lymphoma itself. If your doctor thinks you have lymphoma, he or she will ask questions about your past health, your family and whether you have any other illnesses.
A physical examination may reveal swollen lymph nodes in the neck, groin, armpits or abdomen. These glands are beanlike structures that trap poisons and waste products, and serve as a reservoir for microorganism-fighting antibodies. Tubelike vessels carry milk-colored fluid called lymph from these nodes to other lymph nodes and to the bloodstream. If lymphoma grows in these glands, they can become enlarged and painful. Lymphoma can also damage the bone marrow, causing it to make too many unhealthy white blood cells.
If the lymphoma is in your bone marrow, it’s called leukemia. You’ll have different treatment options depending on which subtype you have:
Smoldering lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) grow slowly and are more likely to go away on their own. Those with aggressive forms of lymphoma, on the other hand, grow faster and need more intensive treatment.
Symptoms of leukemia include tiredness, fever, headaches and trouble thinking. Some patients have a rash on their skin or problems with their stomach, such as loss of appetite and abdominal pain.
Some factors increase your risk of lymphoma, especially Hodgkin disease and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. These include being older (people over 60 are more likely to get both types of lymphoma) and having a weakened immune system from certain diseases or medications, such as AIDS, or exposure to chemicals or radiation. Having a family history of lymphoma is also linked to this illness. Men are more likely to get some types of lymphoma than women.