Mags Beal, Cancer Care clinical operations manager

Understanding lymphoma

23 June 2023

If you’ve just found out that you have lymphoma, or someone close to you has it - you’ll probably have lots of questions. There’s plenty information out there, but it can be truly mind-boggling to know where to turn to and what to read up on.

So, our cancer care team have compiled some of the important ’things you need to know’ about lymphoma, that may help answer some of your concerns.

What is lymphoma?

There are over 60 forms of lymphoma. These are roughly grouped into two main types: Hodgkin lymphoma 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.

Mags Beal, Cancer Care clinical operations manager explains:

“There are a number of different types of lymphoma, each with differing 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 Lymphoma Action, lymphoma is the fifth most commonly diagnosed cancer in the UK1. Thankfully, it’s often one of the most curable types too.

How does lymphoma affect 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
  • or 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. Cancer Research figures show that around 14,200 people are diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma each year in the UK2.

It can affect people of any age but the risk of developing the condition increases as we get older, with more than a third (36%) of all new cases occurring in people aged 75 and over2.

In comparison, around 2,100 people are diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma each year in the UK3. Hodgkin lymphoma can also develop at any age, but incidence rates in the UK are highest in people aged 75 to 79.3

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.

Mags 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.

Diagnosing lymphoma

The only way to confirm a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin and Hodgkin lymphoma is a biopsy. This involves taking a sample of tissue from an affected lymph node, which is then analysed in a laboratory.

Lymphoma treatment

As mentioned earlier, the recommended treatment for lymphoma will depend on the type of lymphoma present and how advanced/aggressive it is. Factors such as the patient’s age and general health may also be taken into account.

Broadly speaking, the options include:

  • chemotherapy, 
  • adiotherapy,
  • or a combination of the two.

Very small lymphomas may be removed during the biopsy, and for early stage, slow-growing non-Hodgkin lymphoma, where the patient isn’t experiencing any symptoms, a ‘watch and wait’ approach may be the preferred option.

What to do if you're concerned about lymphoma

As with any cancer the sooner it's picked up, the quicker treatment can start to prevent progression and sometimes cure the disease.

If you, your child or another family member have symptoms that you think could be due to lymphoma, you should 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:

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Hodgkin lymphoma


  1. What is lymphoma? - Lymphoma Action
  2. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma incidence statistics – Cancer Research UK
  3. Hodgkin lymphoma statistics – Cancer Research UK

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