What is lymphoma?

Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system helps protect us from infection and disease. It is part of the body’s immune system.

There are many types of lymphoma. Different types 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.

The two main sub-types are:

There are many different types of NHL.

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Symptoms of lymphoma

The most common symptom of lymphoma is a swelling in the lymph nodes in one area of the body. This is usually in the neck, armpit or groin. Other symptoms of lymphoma may depend of the specific type you have.

We have more information about signs and symptoms of lymphoma.

Causes of lymphoma

Doctors do not know the exact causes of lymphoma. But there are risk factors that can increase your chance of developing it, such as having a weakened immune system.

Having one or more risk factors does not mean you will get lymphoma. Many people with lymphoma do not have any risk factors for it.

We have more information about:

Diagnosis of lymphoma

If you have symptoms, you usually begin by seeing your GP. If they think your symptoms could be caused by cancer, 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.

If you think you may be pregnant, let your doctor know. Some tests and treatments for lymphoma can be harmful to a baby in the womb. Pregnant women can often still have tests and treatment for lymphoma. But it is important to talk to your doctor so they can plan your care safely. We have more information about cancer and pregnancy.

Biopsy for lymphoma

The most important test for diagnosing lymphoma is a biopsy. A doctor or nurse will take a sample of tissue from the affected area. The most common place to take a biopsy from is an enlarged lymph node. This is called a lymph node biopsy. You may have all or a part of the lymph node removed. The tissue will be sent to a laboratory for testing.

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. You may have other tests, such as blood tests or x-rays to check your general health and how well your heart, lungs, liver and kidneys are working.

Information from these tests help your doctors plan your treatment safely and effectively.

You may have some of the following tests:

  • CT scan

    A CT scan takes a series of x-rays, which build up a three-dimensional picture of the inside of your body.

  • PET-CT scan

    A PET-CT scan gives more detailed information about the part of the body being scanned.

  • MRI scan

    An MRI scan uses magnetism to build up a detailed picture of areas of your body.

  • Bone marrow sample

    A doctor or nurse takes a small sample of bone marrow from the back of the hip bone (pelvis). The sample is sent to a laboratory to be checked for abnormal cells.

  • Lumbar puncture

    A lumbar puncture is when a hollow needle is inserted between the bones of the lower back. It is done to take a sample of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. In some types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the lymphoma cells may get into this fluid.

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time, we have more information that can help.

Lymphoma treatment

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.

Your lymphoma treatment options will depend on a number of things, including:

  • the type of lymphoma you have
  • the stage of your lymphoma
  • your general health
  • which parts of your body are affected.

You can find out more about:

You may have some treatments as part of a clinical trial.

After lymphoma treatment

You have regular follow-up appointments after treatment. Appointments are a good time for you to talk to your doctor or nurse about any concerns you have.

Late effects

Sometimes a side effect may continue or develop months or years after treatment. This is called a late effect.

We have more information about long-term and late effects of treatment for lymphoma.

Well-being and recovery

Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive lifestyle changes after treatment.

Making small changes such as eating well and keeping active can improve your health and wellbeing and help your body recover.

Getting support

Everyone has their own way of dealing with illness and the different emotions they experience. You may find it helpful to talk things over with family and friends or your doctor or nurse.

Macmillan can offer emotional, practical and financial help and support. If you would like to talk, you can:

The organisations below also offer information and support:

  • Blood Cancer UK

    Blood Cancer UK is a blood cancer research charity that provides information and support on any type of blood cancer.

  • Lymphoma Action

    Lymphoma Action gives emotional support, advice and information on all aspects of Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It has a national network of people with lymphoma, and local groups.

About our information

  • References

    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 cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    Eichenauer DA, et al on behalf of the ESMO Guidelines Committee. Hodgkin's lymphoma: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Annals of Oncology. 2014. 25 (Supplement 3): iii70-iii75. Available at: www.annalsofoncology.org/action/showPdf?pii=S0923-7534%2819%2934081-5


    Ladetto M et al. ESMO consensus conference on malignant lymphoma: general perspectives and recommendations for prognostic tools in mature B-cell lymphomas and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. Annals of Oncology. 2016. 27: 12, 2149-2160. Available at: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0923753419365421


    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Guideline NG47. Haematological cancers: improving outcomes. 2016. Available at: www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng47


    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Guideline NG52. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma: diagnosis and management. 2016. Available at: www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng52

  • Reviewers

    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 Editors, Dr Anne Parker, Consultant Haematologist; and 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.

Reviewed: 31 January 2018
Reviewed: 31/01/2018
Next review: 31 July 2020
Next review: 31/07/2020