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Lymphoma is a type of cancer that affects lymphocytes, a type of blood cell integral to the immune system.

A woman having her lymph nodes checked by a doctor

Lymphoma occurs when malignant abnormalities develop in white blood cells called lymphocytes. Lymphoma is the most common blood cancer in the developed world and the disease can be curable if detected early and treated swiftly.

There are about 35 subtypes of lymphoma, depending on the specific lymphocyte types infected, falling into two major categories: Hodgkin (HL) and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

NHL makes up about 90 percent of lymphomas, affecting B-cells and T-cells, while HL affects Reed-Sternberg cells, an unusual type of B lymphocyte.

Exact causes of lymphoma are unknown but risk factors include:

  • Age (people in their 20’s and over 55 more commonly develop HL, most NHL’s occur in those over 60)
  • Certain infections (infection with Epstein-Barr virus, for example, increases the risk of HL)
  • Autoimmune disease or immunodeficiency (particularly NHL)
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals
  • A family history of lymphoma.

What are its symptoms?

Lymphoma symptoms may appear quite nonspecific, which is why it’s always a good idea to get any persistent symptoms checked out. These include:

  • Swelling of the lymph nodes. These include the ‘glands’ in the neck and nodes in the armpits and groin. The lumps are usually painless, although some patients report pain after drinking alcohol
  • Night sweats
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Body itching
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Coughing or shortness of breath
  • Abdominal pain or vomiting after alcohol.

How is it diagnosed?

If, after a medical history is taken and physical examination, a doctor suspects lymphoma – for example, when infection has been ruled out as a cause of lymph node swelling – the next step may be a lymph node biopsy, the definitive test for a lymphoma diagnosis. A surgeon will remove part of or the entire lymph node to be examined under a microscope for signs of cancer.

An examination of the abdomen may reveal an enlarged liver or spleen.

If lymphoma is confirmed, additional tests such as blood tests and imaging test will be carried out to determine the stage of the cancer and whether it has spread elsewhere in the body.

Staging tests include:

  • Blood tests
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • PET scan
  • Bone marrow biopsy
  • Spinal tap.

What are your treatment options?

Lymphoma treatment varies according to the type of lymphoma, how advanced it is and the general health of the patient.

Treatment for HL may be kept to radiotherapy alone, if the cancer is still localised – that is, has not spread beyond part of the lymphatic system.

In other lymphomas as well as advanced HL, chemotherapy is one of the most commonly used treatments, often in combination with radiotherapy or immunotherapy to boost the immune system and slow the cancer’s growth.

Other forms of therapy include stem cell transplantation or surgery for a limited number of cases.

Can it be prevented?

Much remains to be understood about the exact causes of lymphoma and, for the most part, many of the risk factors are unavoidable, making it a difficult disease to prevent.

For more info
The Cancer Association of South Africa

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in June 2015
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