What is Burkitt lymphoma (BL)?

Burkitt lymphoma (BL) is a rare type of fast-growing non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). It develops when B-cells (also called B-lymphocytes) become abnormal. B-cells are white blood cells that fight infection. There are different types of BL. The most common type in the UK is often called sporadic BL.

This information is about Burkitt lymphoma in adults. BL can also affect children. If you need more information about lymphoma in children, you can contact the Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group.

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Symptoms of Burkitt lymphoma (BL)

BL may cause a lump or mass in the tummy area (abdomen). This can cause pain and swelling, feeling sick (nausea) and diarrhoea.

It may also cause painless swellings in the neck, armpit or groin. This is caused by lymphoma cells building up in the lymph nodes, which makes them bigger. Often lymph nodes in more than one part of the body are affected. If BL is in lymph nodes in the chest, throat or jaw, this may cause a sore throat, difficulty swallowing or breathlessness.

General symptoms may include loss of appetite and tiredness.

B symptoms

Some people also have:

  • drenching night sweats
  • high temperatures (fevers) with no obvious cause
  • unexplained weight loss

Doctors call this group of symptoms B symptoms.

Causes of Burkitt lymphoma (BL)

The causes of sporadic BL are mostly unknown.

There is another type of BL that can affect people in the UK if they have a weakened immune system. This is called immunodeficiency-associated BL. The body's immune system can be weakened by:

Like other cancers, BL is not infectious and cannot be passed on to other people.

Diagnosis of Burkitt lymphoma (BL)

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.

Staging and grading of Burkitt lymphoma (BL)

The results of your tests help your doctors find out how many areas of the body are affected by lymphoma and where these areas are. This is called staging.

Lymphomas are also grouped as either low-grade or high-grade. Low-grade lymphomas are usually slow growing and high-grade lymphomas grow more quickly. BL is a high-grade, lymphoma.

We have more information about staging and grading of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Treatment for Burkitt lymphoma (BL)

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 or 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 main treatment for BL is a combination of drugs that includes: 

  • Targeted therapy

    The targeted therapy drug rituximab is often used with chemotherapy to treat BL.

  • Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy can be given into the spinal fluid to allow the drug to reach the spinal cord and brain (central nervous system). This is called intrathecal chemotherapy. It may be given to treat lymphoma or to reduce the risk of lymphoma developing in these areas.The following chemotherapy drugs may also be used in different combinations to treat BL:

  • Steroids

    Steroids are drugs that are often given with chemotherapy to treat lymphomas. They help make chemotherapy more effective.

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

You usually stay in hospital while you are having treatment for BL.

The drugs used may cause the lymphoma cells to break down very quickly. This can cause chemical imbalances in the blood that affect the kidneys and the heart. This is called tumour lysis syndrome (TLS).

You doctor and nurse will monitor you closely for signs of TLS and give you drugs to help prevent it. You usually have a drug called rasburicase as a drip (infusion) and extra fluids as a drip to help protect your kidneys. You may only need rasburicase with the first treatment for BL. After that, you can have tablets called allopurinol instead.

After treatment, some people are cured of BL. But for others, cancer may come back after treatment. If this happens, you may be able to have further treatment.

After Burkitt lymphoma (BL) treatment

You have regular follow-up appointments after treatment. These appointments are a good opportunity for you to talk to your doctor or nurse about any concerns you have. Your doctor will want to know how you are feeling generally, and to check you are recovering from any side effects of treatment.

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 is also 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 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 Burkitt lymphoma (BL) information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma: diagnosis and management. 2016. Available from: 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 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: 31 January 2018
Reviewed: 31/01/2018
Next review: 31 July 2020
Next review: 31/07/2020