Non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is an uncommon cancer that develops in the lymphatic system.  See your GP if you have any of the symptoms below, particularly if you have persistently swollen glands with no other signs of infection. It’s unlikely to be cancer, but you should get the symptoms checked.

About non-Hodgkin lymphoma

The lymphatic system is a network of vessels and glands spread throughout your body. It is part of your immune system.

Clear fluid called lymph flows through the lymphatic vessels. It contains infection-fighting white blood cells. These are known as lymphocytes.

In non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the affected lymphocytes start to multiply in an abnormal way.

They begin to collect in certain parts of the lymphatic system, such as the lymph nodes (glands).

The affected lymphocytes lose their infection-fighting properties. This makes you more vulnerable to infection.

Symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma

The most common symptom of non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a painless swelling in a lymph node. This is usually in the neck, armpit or groin.

Lymph nodes, also known as lymph glands, are pea-sized lumps of tissue found throughout the body.

The swelling is caused by lymphocytes collecting in the lymph node.

It's unlikely you have non-Hodgkin lymphoma if you have swollen lymph nodes, as these glands often swell as a response to infection.

Other symptoms

Some people with non-Hodgkin lymphoma also have other more general symptoms. These can include:

Other symptoms depend on where in the body the enlarged lymph glands are. For example, if the abdomen (tummy) is affected, you may have abdominal pain or indigestion.

A few people with lymphoma have abnormal cells in their bone marrow when they're diagnosed. This may lead to:

  • persistent tiredness or fatigue
  • an increased risk of infections
  • excessive bleeding – such as nosebleeds, heavy periods and spots of blood under the skin

When to seek medical advice

See your GP if you have any of the above symptoms, particularly if you have persistently swollen glands with no other signs of infection.

While the symptoms are unlikely to be caused by non-Hodgkin lymphoma, it's best to get them checked out.

The only way to confirm a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma is by carrying out a biopsy.

This is a minor surgical procedure where a sample of affected lymph node tissue is removed and studied in a laboratory.

Causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma

The exact cause of non-Hodgkin lymphoma is unknown. Your risk of developing the condition is increased if:

  • you have a medical condition that weakens your immune system
  • you take immunosuppressant medication
  • you've previously been exposed to a common virus called the Epstein-Barr virus – which causes glandular fever

You also have a slightly increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma if a close relative (such as a parent or sibling) has had the condition.

Treatment and outlook

There are many subtypes of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but they can generally be put into one of two broad categories:

  • high-grade or aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma – where the cancer develops quickly and aggressively
  • low-grade or indolent non-Hodgkin lymphoma – where the cancer develops slowly, and you may not experience any symptoms for many years

The outlook for non-Hodgkin lymphoma varies greatly. It depends on the exact type, grade and extent of the lymphoma, and the person’s age.

Low-grade tumours don't necessarily require immediate medical treatment. But they are harder to completely cure.

High-grade lymphomas need to be treated straight away. But they tend to respond much better to treatment and can often be cured.

If you are diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, your hospital consultant will discuss the treatment options with you.

The main treatments used for non-Hodgkin lymphoma are:

Overall, most cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma are considered very treatable.

You can read more detailed information about the outlook for non-Hodgkin lymphoma on the Cancer Research UK website.

Information specific to Northern Ireland is also available on the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry website.

There's a risk of long-term problems after treatment, including infertility and an increased risk of developing another type of cancer in the future.

Who's affected

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma can occur at any age. But your chances of developing the condition increase as you get older, with most cases diagnosed in people over 65.

Slightly more men than women are affected.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

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