Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system.
There are two main types of lymphoma. They develop and are treated in different ways.
A doctor can only find out your lymphoma type by collecting some lymphoma cells and testing them in a laboratory. If the sample contains a type of cell called Reed-Sternberg cells, the lymphoma is usually Hodgkin lymphoma. If there are no Reed-Sternberg cells, it is non-Hodgkin lymphoma. There are many different types of NHL.
We have more information about how lymphoma develops.
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The causes of lymphoma are mostly unknown. But some things may increase the risk of developing it, such as having a weakened immune system.
These are called risk factors.
Having one or more of these risk factors does not mean you will get lymphoma. Many people with lymphoma do not have any risk factors.
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If you have symptoms, you usually start by seeing your GP. They may arrange for you to have blood tests or scans. Your doctor will refer you to hospital for tests and for specialist advice and treatment.
At the hospital, the doctor will ask about any symptoms, your general health and any illnesses you have had. They will also examine you.
If you think you may be pregnant, tell your doctor. Some tests and treatments for lymphoma can be harmful to a baby in the womb. If you are pregnant you usually still have tests and treatment for lymphoma. But it is important to talk to your doctor so they can plan your care safely.
Biopsy for lymphoma
The most important test for diagnosing lymphoma is a biopsy. A doctor or nurse removes a small piece of tissue or a sample of cells from the affected area.
The most common place to take a biopsy from is an enlarged lymph node. You may have all or part of the lymph node removed.
The tissue is examined under a microscope by a doctor called a pathologist. They look for lymphoma cells and do different tests on the cells.
You may have to wait up to 2 weeks for the results of the biopsy.
Further tests for lymphoma
You will have more tests before you start treatment for lymphoma. Some tests help to show the stage of the lymphoma.
For example, your doctor will do blood tests to check the levels of different blood cells in your blood. They may also talk to you about having blood tests to check for certain viruses, such as HIV and hepatitis.
Information from tests helps your doctors plan your treatment safely and effectively. You may have some of the following tests.
PET or PET-CT scan
Bone marrow sample
Waiting for test results can be a difficult time, we have more information that can help.
Knowing the extent of the lymphoma helps your doctor plan the right treatment. This is called staging.
Grade of non-Hodgkin lymphoma
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is also grouped as either low grade or high grade. Low grade lymphomas grow very slowly. High grade lymphomas grow more quickly. The grade of NHL is important in deciding your treatment.
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A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).
Your doctor or cancer specialist nurse will explain the different treatments and their side effects. They will also talk to you about things to consider when making treatment decisions.
The treatment you have will depend on:
- the type and stage of the lymphoma
- its grade (if you have non-Hodgkin lymphoma)
- the symptoms you have
- which parts of your body are affected
- your general health
- your preferences.
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You may have some treatments as part of a clinical trial.
You will have regular follow-up appointments after your treatment. You can talk to your doctor or nurse about any concerns you may have at these appointments. Your doctor will want to know how you are feeling, and to check you are recovering from any side effects of treatment.
Sometimes side effects may continue or develop months or years after treatment. These are called late effects. We have more information about long-term and late effects of treatment for lymphoma.
Sex life and fertility
Cancer and its treatment can sometimes affect your sex life. There ways to improve your sexual well-being and to manage any problems.
Treatment for lymphoma may affect your fertility. If you are worried about your fertility it is important to talk with your doctor before you start treatment. We have more information about:
Macmillan is here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:
The organisations below also offer information and support:
Blood Cancer UK
Lymphoma Action gives emotional support, advice and information for people with Hodgkin lymphoma or non-Hodgkin lymphoma and those close to them. It has a national network of people with lymphoma, as well as local groups. Their website has a section called trialslink where you can see information about lymphoma clinical trials.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our lymphoma information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Blood and bone marrow cancers. NICE Pathways. Last accessed 3 December 2020.
Hodgkin lymphoma: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up; European Society for Medical Oncology (2018).
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma: diagnosis and management; NICE Guideline (July 2016).
Newly Diagnosed and Relapsed Follicular Lymphoma: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up; European Society for Medical Oncology (2020).
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Professor Rajnish Gupta, Macmillan Consultant Medical Oncologist.
Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.