What is Lymphoma?

Lymphoma is a type of blood cancer. There are several types of lymphoma, and each type can behave a little differently. Doctors use a number of tests and procedures to diagnose lymphoma and other types of blood cancers. Treatment depends largely on the type of lymphoma and the extent to which the abnormal cells have spread. Fortunately, many types of lymphoma respond well to treatment.

Like other types of cancer, the main characteristic of lymphoma is the growth of abnormal cells. These abnormal cells prevent healthy cells from functioning properly. In time, the abnormal cells can spread to other parts of the body.

About the Lymphatic System

Lymphoma begins in the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. The lymphatic system is a network of interconnected tissues and organs that help your body get rid of waste, toxins, and other unwanted material.

The lymphatic system features lymph vessels, which are similar to blood vessels except that they carry lymph fluid instead of blood. The lymph vessels route this lymph fluid through lymph nodes, which are small structures that filter out harmful substances. Lymph nodes also contain special immune cells, known as lymphocytes, which attack and destroy germs to fight infection.

In lymphoma, abnormal lymphocytes grow at uncontrolled rates. In the early stages of the disease, the abnormal lymphocytes grow in the lymph node. As the cancer progresses, the abnormal lymphocytes begin growing in other parts of the body.

Types of Lymphoma

There are many types of lymphoma. Hodgkin disease is one type of lymphoma. All other lymphomas are non-Hodgkin lymphomas.

  1. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma starts when certain lymphocytes, known as T cells and B cells, become abnormal.
  2. Hodgkin lymphoma is characterized by a certain type of B cell, known as a Reed-Sternberg cell. The abnormal cell divides repeatedly to make more of the abnormal cells. These abnormal cells can then spread to other parts of the body.

Are all lymphomas similar?

While all lymphomas affect the lymphatic system, not all lymphomas are alike. Some lymphomas are incurable, but manageable, for example. Other types of lymphoma can grow very quickly but can be curable with treatment. Some types of lymphomas tend to appear in young adults, while other types develop primarily in older people.

Treatment for the different types of lymphomas can vary too. A patient may have lymphoma for 10 or 20 years and never require treatment, while others develop lymphoma that is immediately life-threatening.

Signs and Symptoms of Lymphomas

Signs and symptoms of lymphoma may include:

  • Painless lump or enlargement of your lymph nodes, spleen, or other immune tissue
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Fever without a viral infection or other obvious reason
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Soaking night sweats
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness or tiredness that does not go away

Lymphoma Risk Factors

Certain factors can increase your risk of developing lymphoma. These risk factors can vary between Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Certain viral infections

Infection with certain viruses can affect the DNA of lymphocytes in ways that help the white blood cells transform into cancer cells. These viruses include Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which can cause mononucleosis or “mono.” Infection with the human herpesvirus 8 (HHV-8), which is uncommon in North America, can also increase the risk for developing lymphoma.


Some types of lymphoma are more common in young people while other types occur more frequently in older adults. Most cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma occur in people who are in their 60s or older, but some types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma are more common in younger people. Hodgkin lymphoma can develop at any age but it is most common in early adulthood, especially in people in their 20s, and in those over the age of 55.


Males are slightly more likely to develop lymphoma than are females.


Whites are more likely to develop lymphoma than are people of other races.

Family history

You have a higher risk of developing lymphoma if you have a first-degree relative, such as a parent, child or sibling, diagnosed with the condition.

Weakened immune system

Lymphoma is more common in people with immune system diseases or who take drugs that suppress the immune system.

Autoimmune diseases

Autoimmune diseases are associated with an increased risk of certain types of lymphoma. Autoimmune conditions develop when your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body. Autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome, and celiac disease.

Bodyweight and diet

People who are overweight or obese may be at a higher risk for certain lymphomas. Those who eat a diet high in fat and meats may also have an increased risk for lymphoma.

Early detection and treatment of lymphoma and other blood cancers can help improve the outcome of treatment and quality of life. For more information about lymphoma and its types, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment, consult with your doctor or blood cancer specialist.