What is lymphoma?

Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system.

There are two main types of lymphoma. They develop and are treated in different ways.

They are:

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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Symptoms of lymphoma

The most common symptom of lymphoma is a painless swelling in the lymph nodes in the neck, armpit or groin.

We have more information about the signs and symptoms of lymphoma.

Causes of lymphoma

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.

We have more information about:

Diagnosis of lymphoma

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.

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.

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.

  • CT scan

    A CT scan makes a three-dimensional (3D) picture of the inside of the body using x-rays taken by the CT scanner.

  • Ultrasound

    An ultrasound uses sound waves to build up a picture of internal organs. It can be used to guide a biopsy. The scan helps to guide them to the exact area.

  • PET or PET-CT scan

    A PET-CT scan uses low-dose radiation to check the activity of cells in different parts of the body.

  • MRI scan

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

  • Bone marrow sample

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

  • Lumbar puncture

    In some types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the lymphoma cells may get into the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. You may have a lumbar puncture to take a sample of this fluid.  

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

Staging of lymphoma

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.

You can find out more about:

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.

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.

You can find out more about:

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

After lymphoma treatment

After treatment

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.

Late effects

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:

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

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

    Blood Cancer UK offers support and information to people affected by blood cancers, including lymphoma.

  • Lymphoma Action

    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.

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

    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).

  • 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 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.

Reviewed: 01 March 2021
Reviewed: 01/03/2021
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Next review: 01 March 2024
Next review: 01/03/2024