What is Hodgkin lymphoma?

Hodgkin lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system – part of the body’s immune system.

There are two main types of lymphoma: Hodgkin lymphoma (HL) and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). Only about 1 in 5 of all lymphomas diagnosed (20%) are Hodgkin lymphoma.

Around 1,700 people are diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in the UK each year.

How does Hodgkin lymphoma develop?

Hodgkin lymphoma, like all cancers, is a disease of the body’s cells. Cells are tiny building blocks that make up the organs and tissues of our bodies. They divide to make new cells in a controlled way. This is how our bodies grow, heal and repair.

Cells receive signals from the body telling them when to divide and grow and when to stop growing. When a cell is no longer needed or can’t be repaired, it gets a signal to stop working and die. Cancer develops when the normal workings of a cell go wrong and the cell becomes abnormal. The abnormal cell keeps dividing making more and more abnormal cells.

In Hodgkin lymphoma, blood cells called lymphocytes become abnormal. These abnormal lymphocytes (lymphoma cells) keep dividing and grow out of the body’s control. Over time, the number of lymphoma cells increases and they form a lump called a tumour.

Lymphoma cells generally start to grow in lymph nodes. As there are lymph nodes and lymph vessels throughout the body, Hodgkin lymphoma can start in any part of the body. The most common place for it to start is in the lymph nodes in the neck. The next most common places are the lymph nodes:

  • under the arms (axilla)
  • in the chest
  • in the groin.

Hodgkin lymphoma may affect a group of lymph nodes in just one area of the body. However, it’s common for lymphoma to be found in lymph nodes in more than one area of the body. This is because lymphoma cells can sometimes spread through the lymphatic system.

Lymphoma cells can also spread to other organs in the bloodstream. When the cells reach a new area, they may go on dividing and form a new tumour. Hodgkin lymphoma can also occur in body organs. In some people it can affect the spleen, liver, lungs or bone marrow.

The treatment of Hodgkin lymphoma is usually very successful, even when it is in several different areas of the body. Most people can now be cured or the lymphoma can be controlled for many years.

Back to Understanding Hodgkin lymphoma

What is cancer?

There are more than 200 different kinds of cancer, each with its own name and treatment.

Types of Hodgkin lymphoma

Hodgkin lymphomas are grouped according to two types – classical or nodular lymphocyte-predominant.