Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a group of blood cancers that develop in your lymphatic system. People are living longer with these conditions thanks to new treatments, including targeted therapies. In some cases, treatments eliminate non-Hodgkin lymphoma signs and symptoms, putting the disease into remission for months or years.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a group of blood cancers that usually develop in your lymphatic system. They're acquired genetic disorders. You’re not born with these disorders. Instead, they happen when genes inside certain cells mutate or change. In this case, the affected cells are B lymphocytes (B cells) or T lymphocytes (T cells) that are part of your immune system.
There are more than 70 types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. People are living longer with these conditions thanks to new treatments, including targeted therapies. In some cases, treatments eliminate all non-Hodgkin lymphoma signs and symptoms and cure the condition. In other cases, the goal of the treatment is to put the disease into remission for as long as possible.
They're relatively common. In the United States, this group of conditions is the sixth most common cancer in men and people designated male at birth (DMAB) and the sixth most common cancer in women and people designated female at birth (DFAB).
The U.S. National Cancer Institute estimates that 2% of all men and people DMAB and women and people DFAB will develop some type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in their lifetime. Non-Hodgkin lymphomas represent about 3% of all cancer-related deaths in the U.S. Worldwide, approximately 5 in 100,000 people have a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and about 3 in 100,000 people die from this condition.
Non-Hodgkin lymphomas typically affect people age 60 and older. They're somewhat more common in men and people DMAB than in women and people DFAB. They typically affect more people who are white than people who are Black.
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Non-Hodgkin lymphoma isn’t a single disease. There are many different types of non-Hodgkin lymphomas. These types have the same kinds of symptoms. However, each type of lymphoma may affect your body in different ways. For example, some types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma spread more quickly than other types. Some types affect organs like your spleen and liver while other types affect your skin.
Some non-Hodgkin lymphomas may affect your lymphatic system and your ability to fight infection. Your lymphatic system is a network of organs, vessels and lymph nodes that works with your immune system. Non-Hodgkin lymphomas happen when white blood cells known as lymphocytes mutate or change.
These cells include B cells, T cells and natural killer (NK) cells. The normal function of B cells is to make antibodies that fight bacteria and infections. T cells target viruses and other foreign cells and help B cells make antibodies. NK cells attack some cancer cells and viruses. Healthcare providers classify lymphomas according to the type of white blood cell in which a lymphoma starts. About 85% of all non-Hodgkin lymphomas start in B cells.
When these cells mutate, they continuously multiply, eventually becoming tumors. Since your lymphatic system touches nearly every part of your body, non-Hodgkin lymphoma frequently spreads from where it started to other areas of your body. Non-Hodgkin lymphomas may grow slowly (indolent) or spread very quickly (aggressive).
There are several common forms of aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphomas. These are lymphomas that progress or spread very quickly and cause more serious symptoms than indolent non-Hodgkin lymphoma. They tend to respond quickly to treatment.
These lymphoma types typically grow very slowly. People who have a form of indolent non-Hodgkin lymphoma may not notice changes in their body that turn out to be symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
People diagnosed with indolent lymphoma may not need immediate treatment. Healthcare providers instead may monitor your health until they determine that treatment is necessary. This is sometimes called “watchful waiting”. Existing treatments often can’t cure this condition yet are very effective. These treatments typically ease and sometimes eliminate symptoms for a long time.
These serious conditions can sometimes make your body more vulnerable to life-threatening infections, other kinds of cancer or heart disease. Data show about 3 in 100,000 people worldwide die of some type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Studies show that overall, 73% percent of people with these conditions are alive five years after their diagnosis. In general, people diagnosed before the condition spreads live longer than people who are diagnosed after the condition spreads.
Yes, this group of conditions can affect children. There are three common types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in children:
Non-Hodgkin lymphomas happen when your body produces too many leukocytes or white blood cells. Healthcare providers don’t know all the reasons why this happens. Genetic mutations that affect white blood cell growth play a part. (These are acquired genetic mutations, meaning you develop them during your lifetime instead of being born with them.) They also know people who have certain infections or problems with their immune system are more likely to develop a non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Non-Hodgkin lymphomas cause many symptoms. It’s important to remember that many of these symptoms are common and related to many conditions. Simply having these symptoms doesn’t mean you have a non-Hodgkin lymphoma. That said, you should contact your healthcare provider anytime you notice changes in your body that last for several weeks.
Here are common symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphomas:
Providers may use the following tests:
Blood tests give your healthcare provider a view of your overall health. Providers may test your blood for viruses linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma, or for substances or other characteristics that may be signs of disease.
Imaging tests give healthcare providers information about changes in your body, such as tumors.
Test results help providers with cancer staging. Providers stage cancer to develop treatment plans and estimate prognosis, or expected outcome. Here's information about non-Hodgkin lymphoma stages:
Cancer staging systems help healthcare providers to plan treatment and share information about your situation. Healthcare providers use stages to plan non-Hodgkin lymphoma treatment. They also evaluate risk factors to place conditions in certain categories that characterize prognosis or expected outcomes.
Some people who have cancer may be confused and intimidated by a system that describes their illness with a formula of letters and numbers or risk factors that place them in one category or another. They may even feel as if their condition’s stage or category defines who they are.
Healthcare providers understand why people may feel this way. If this is your situation, talk to your provider. They’ll be glad to answer your questions about cancer staging systems.
There are several types of treatments for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. These treatments either kill cancer cells or keep them from dividing. Each treatment has different side effects. Here's more information:
There are several risk factors linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. A risk factor is an activity or physical condition that increases your risk of developing a certain disease. Your risk of developing a non-Hodgkin lymphoma increases if you're:
As explained below, you may also be at risk if you:
The following conditions may increase your risk:
Some people who have had the following treatments may develop a non-Hodgkin lymphoma:
You may develop a non-Hodgkin lymphoma if you:
Yes, people who have treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphomas go into remission. Remission means they don’t have any symptoms and tests show they don’t have signs of the condition. Some people are considered to be cured because they’ve remained in remission for many years. Sometimes non-Hodgkin lymphomas come back. Studies show most aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphomas come back during the first two years after treatment, or they never come back.
It’s important to remember that not everyone diagnosed with a non-Hodgkin lymphoma ultimately dies from it, even if the condition can’t be cured.
There are two reasons why your condition may come back:
Yes, they can. For example, if you have an aggressive type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, your healthcare provider may use the International Prognostic Index (IPI), one of several risk-scoring tools. The index is based on factors such as your age, non-Hodgkin lymphoma stage and certain blood test results.
For some people, living with non-Hodgkin lymphoma means their treatment eliminated the cancer cells and they're cured. This is more common after treatment for aggressive lymphoma. Other people may have this condition for the rest of their lives. It’s important to remember that with some forms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, many people have normal (or near normal) quality of life. It’s just as important to remember that not everyone who's diagnosed ultimately dies from it, even if the condition can’t be cured.
If your condition is in remission, it means treatment eliminated all signs and symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Even so, you’ll need regular checkups so your healthcare provider can monitor your overall health and watch for relapse.
You may feel anxious because you can’t be sure you won’t get sick again. If that’s your situation, talk to your provider. They may have information to make you worry less. They may also have resources to help you manage your emotions.
Some people with a non-Hodgkin lymphoma will need continuous treatment. Other people may need occasional treatment. In both cases, however, these people will still have a non-Hodgkin lymphoma and will need some form of treatment for the rest of their lives.
It’s not easy to live with a chronic disease that’s likely to get worse as time goes by. If you are living with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, you may want to explore palliative care. Palliative care provides symptom relief, comfort and support to people living with serious medical conditions.
You can manage your condition in several ways. These activities won’t make your condition go away, but they may help you feel more confident about living with it:
If you’re receiving treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, you should contact your provider if your symptoms return or get worse.
You should go to the emergency room if you have treatment side effects that don’t subside after taking prescribed medication, are stronger than you expect or continue for a long time.
You’ll probably have many questions as you go through diagnosis and treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Here are some questions you may want to ask your healthcare provider:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Newer treatments such as targeted therapy and immunotherapy are making a difference for people who have some type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Some people are living longer. Some people no longer have non-Hodgkin lymphoma symptoms or signs of disease. In some forms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, many people complete treatment and go on to have normal (or nearly normal) quality of life.
Meanwhile, researchers continue to investigate genetic mutations that cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma. If you’re living with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, ask your healthcare provider about clinical trials evaluating potential treatments.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/05/2022.
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