Understanding lymphoma


18 October 2018

If you’ve just found out that you have lymphoma, or someone close to you has it - you’ll probably have lots of questions and concerns and want to find the answers.

There’s lots information out there, but it can be truly mind-boggling to know where to turn to and what to read up on. 

We’ve compiled some of the important “things you need to know” about lymphoma that may help answer some of your questions. 

What is lymphoma?

Lymphoma is called many different things. There are two main types of lymphoma – Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Both are cancers of the lymphatic system – a network of vessels and glands that connect throughout your body and carry infection-fighting white blood cells. 

Registered General Nurse and is Operations Manager of AXA Health’s Cancer Care team, Evelyn Wallace explains, ‘There are a number of different types of lymphoma, each with dissimilar forms of aggressiveness, for example the speed of progression can vary for each type, which can then effect the treatment and prognosis of the condition.’ 

According to the Lymphoma Association, lymphoma is now the fifth most commonly diagnosed cancer in the UK. Thankfully, it’s often one of the most curable types too.

How it affects the body

In lymphoma white blood cells – known as lymphocytes – get out of control and increase vastly in number. As more and more accumulate, tumours begin to form. These tumours can occur in lymph nodes in any part of the body, as well as in the spleen or bone marrow.

In most cases of Hodgkin lymphoma, a particular cell called the Reed-Sternberg cell is found.

It’s only possible to tell the difference between Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma when the cells are looked at under a microscope. But distinguishing which type of lymphoma you have is important because the two main types behave and, therefore, need to be treated differently. 

What’s my lymphoma risk? 

You can't catch lymphoma from someone and you can't give it to anyone else.

Lymphoma begins with a change to the white blood cells in your body. It’s not clear why this happens, but some people can be at more risk of lymphoma than others because of:

  • Family risk 
  • A weakened immune system
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Previous cancer treatment
  • Infection.

There have been several studies over the years that suggest that exposure to chemicals, such as hair dyes, or certain recreational drugs can cause lymphoma, but there is no hard evidence to support this. 

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is more common than Hodgkin lymphoma.

Recent Cancer Research figures show that over 12,200 people are diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma each year in the UK. They say it’s more common in the over-55s and it is one of the most common types of cancer in people aged 75 and over. Although non-Hodgkin lymphoma can happen at any age, around six in 10 of all cases (60%) are diagnosed in people aged 65 and over.

In comparison, according to Cancer Research, more than 1,900 people are diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma each year in the UK. Hodgkin lymphoma can occur at any age, but most people who develop it are between the ages of 15 and 35 or are over 55. 

Both types of lymphoma affect slightly more men than women.

What are the symptoms of lymphoma? 

The most common symptom of lymphoma is a painless swelling in a lymph node, usually in the neck, armpit or groin. But it’s important to remember that most of the time swollen glands are a common response to infection. So if you have swollen glands don’t panic – it’s unlikely to be lymphoma.

Evelyn confirms that, ‘symptoms such as swollen lymph glands (e.g. lumps in the neck, armpit or groin) in association with feeling generally unwell possibly with fever, fatigue, weight loss, skin itch, a cough or bowel symptoms may be indicators that this disease is a possibility.’

Other symptoms appear later in the illness and can include:

  • Unexplained tiredness or fatigue 
  • Night sweats 
  • Unexplained weight loss  
  • Fever 
  • Trouble getting rid of infections or increased risk of infection 
  • A persistent cough or feeling of breathlessness 
  • Persistent itching of the skin all over the body. 

    What to do if you are concerned about lymphoma

    ‘As with any cancer the sooner it is picked up, the quicker treatment can start to prevent progression and sometimes cure of the disease,’ says Evelyn.

    If you, your child or another family member, have symptoms that you think could be due to lymphoma, get them checked out by your doctor. 

    Cancer Research advises that if you have a swollen lymph node that doesn’t go away after six weeks, for example, you should definitely see your GP. 

    Your doctor may want to run some tests, or may ask you to wait to see if your symptoms get better or respond to simple treatments.

    Depending on the results, they’ll then decide whether you need to be referred to a specialist. If this happens, remember these checks are to find out what is causing your symptoms, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have lymphoma.

    You may still have some questions about lymphoma. But don’t worry, there’s lots of information and support on hand from our lymphoma factsheets and our dedicated Cancer Centre


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