What is lymphoma?

Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system.

The body is made up of cells that need to be replaced as they age or are damaged. This happens through cell division, which is when a cell divides and makes new copies of itself.

Normally, cell division is carefully controlled. But sometimes this process can get out of control. Too many cells may be made and a cancer, such as lymphoma, can develop.

In lymphoma, blood cells called lymphocytes become abnormal. These are the lymphoma cells. Usually the body’s immune system destroys abnormal cells. But lymphoma cells are often able to avoid the immune system. This means they can keep dividing and grow out of control. Over time, there are enough lymphoma cells to form a lump. The most common place for this to happen is in the lymph nodes. But lymphoma can start growing in other parts of the body.

Lymphocytes travel around the body. This means that lymphoma can spread from where it first started. It can spread through the lymphatic system from lymph nodes in one part of the body to lymph nodes elsewhere. Lymphoma cells can also travel in the bloodstream to organs such as the bone marrow, liver or lungs. The cells may then keep dividing to form a new area of lymphoma.

The difference between Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma

It’s only possible to tell the difference between Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma when the cells are looked at under a microscope.

In most cases of Hodgkin lymphoma, a particular cell called the Reed-Sternberg cell is found when cells from the lymph node are examined during diagnosis. This cell isn’t usually found in other types of lymphoma, so these types are called non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

This difference is important, because the treatment for Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma can be very different. It’s thought that Reed-Sternberg cells are a type of white blood cell - a B-cell that has become cancerous. B-cells normally make antibodies to fight infection.

Back to Lymphoma

What is cancer?

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