What is lymphoma?

Lymphoma is a term for cancers that start in your lymphatic system. There are two major classes of lymphoma: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Here, we focus on lymphomas that affect adults.

What is the lymphatic system?

Your lymphatic system helps your immune system protect your body from infection and disease. Your lymph nodes are the front line against infection. They store white blood cells (lymphocytes) that multiply to fight infection. These include B-cells that make antibodies and T-cells that recognize and destroy unhealthy or infected cells.

Lymphoma happens when one of your white blood cells changes into rapidly growing cancer cells that don’t die. These cancer cells can grow within your lymph nodes or other areas, including your bone marrow, spleen or other organs.

Is lymphoma a common illness?

Adult non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is the most common of the three lymphoma types. Each year, approximately 20 people in 100,000 are diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and 3 adults in 100,000 are diagnosed with adult Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Who does lymphoma affect?

Each lymphoma type affects different people:

  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is more common in late adulthood (ages 60 to 80) and more frequently in men than women.
  • Hodgkin lymphoma is more common in early adulthood (age 20 to 39) and late adulthood (age 65 and older). Men are slightly more likely than women to develop adult Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

What are the survival rates for lymphoma?

Early diagnosis and more effective treatments mean more people are living with lymphoma five years after diagnosis. Nearly 90% of people with Hodgkin lymphoma are alive five years after diagnosis. More than 70% of adults with non-Hodgkin lymphoma are alive five years after diagnosis.

Symptoms and Causes

What are common lymphoma symptoms?

Many lymphoma symptoms are similar to other illnesses. Having these symptoms doesn’t mean you have lymphoma. But you should talk to your healthcare provider if you have symptoms that last for several weeks. Lymphoma symptoms can include:

  • Painless swelling of one or more lymph nodes in your neck, armpits or groin.
  • Persistent fatigue.
  • Unexplained fever.
  • Drenching night sweats.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Itchy skin.

What causes lymphoma?

Although most cancers arise from random chance, researchers have identified the following conditions or circumstances that can increase your risk:

  • You have or have had viruses, including HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), Epstein-Barr (mononucleosis) and Kaposi sarcoma human immunodeficiency virus.
  • You have a family history of lymphoma.
  • Your immune system is compromised or weakened by illness or medical treatments such as having an organ transplant.
  • You have an autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease happens when your immune system accidentally attacks your body instead of protecting it.
  • You have certain chronic infections.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is lymphoma diagnosed?

Healthcare providers use a range of tests to diagnose lymphoma and determine treatment:

  • Complete blood count (CBC): A CBC measures and counts your blood cells. Healthcare providers use CBC to detect a variety of illnesses.
  • Blood chemistry test: This test measures the number of certain substances in your blood.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: This test uses a series of X-rays and a computer to create three-dimensional images of your soft tissues and bones.
  • Positron emissions tomography (PET) scan: Your healthcare provider injects a radioactive tracer into your body. The tracer helps detect early signs of cancer.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This test uses a large magnet, radio waves and a computer to produce very clear images of organs and structures within your body.
  • Biopsy of lymph node or other organs: Healthcare providers do biopsies to obtain cells, fluids, tissues or growths for examination under a microscope.
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap): Your healthcare provider inserts a needle into your lower back to get a sample of cerebrospinal fluid. Cerebrospinal fluid is the clear liquid that surrounds your spine and brain.
  • Bone marrow biopsy: Your healthcare provider inserts a needle into your pelvic bone or breast bone to remove a small sample of your bone marrow from inside your bone.

Management and Treatment

What medications and treatments are used to treat lymphoma?

Lymphoma treatments vary based on the kind of lymphoma you have. Generally, lymphoma treatment includes:

  • Chemotherapy: Healthcare providers use several types of drugs to kill cancer cells.
  • Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy uses strong beams of energy to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing.
  • Targeted therapy: Targeted therapy uses drugs or other substances to attack cancer cells without hurting normal cells.
  • Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy stimulates your immune system so it can do more to fight cancer. Treatments can fuel your body’s production of cancer-fighting cells or help healthy cells identify and attack cancer cells.
  • Bone marrow transplant: Healthcare providers transplant stem cells from your bone marrow to replace damaged blood cells with healthy ones.
  • CAR T-cell therapy: This treatment uses your white blood cells to kill cancer cells.

What are common side effects of lymphoma treatment?

Lymphoma treatments vary based on your situation. Most treatments have different side effects. Just as important, people often have different reactions to the same treatment. Ask your healthcare provider what to expect during treatment, including potential side effects. Your healthcare provider will suggest ways to manage your treatment side effects.

Care at Cleveland Clinic


How can I reduce my risk of developing lymphoma?

Researchers continue to identify lymphoma risk factors. There’s reason to believe certain viruses and family medical history increase the risk of developing lymphoma. Talk to your healthcare provider if you think your medical history or family medical history might increase your risk of developing lymphoma.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have lymphoma?

The prognosis or expected outcome for lymphoma continues to improve as healthcare providers find newer ways to treat lymphoma.

Living With

How can I take care of myself if I have lymphoma?

If you have lymphoma, you might benefit by creating a plan for living with lymphoma. This plan could see you through initial treatment and any follow-up treatment. Here are some things to consider as you develop your plan:

  • Find out how lymphoma treatment might affect your daily life. That way, you can decide if you’ll need help at home or while you’re receiving treatment.
  • Cancer is stressful. You might find activities such as meditation, relaxation exercises or deep breathing exercises help ease your stress.
  • Consider exercise or regular physical activity. People who have cancer who engage in regular physical activity have better outcomes.
  • Cancer can be lonely. You might not feel comfortable talking to family and friends about your illness. Ask your healthcare provider about services and programs that might be helpful.

When should I see my healthcare provider?

Contact your healthcare provider any time you think your lymphoma symptoms are getting worse or you need help managing your treatment side effects.

When should I go to the emergency room?

Many cancer treatments affect your immune system. That means your cancer treatment might increase your risk of developing infections. Symptoms that might require an emergency room visit are:

  • Fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or above (38 degrees Celsius or above.)
  • Chills.
  • Productive or “wet” cough.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Persistent diarrhea.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

Cancer is a journey, and your questions will change throughout your journey. If you’re just learning you have lymphoma, here are some basic questions you might want to ask:

  • How do you know I have lymphoma?
  • What kind of lymphoma do I have?
  • How long have I had lymphoma?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • What are each treatment’s side effects?
  • What’s my prognosis?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Lymphoma is a serious illness. Fortunately, lymphoma treatments continue to improve, helping people to live longer. Each year, more people who have lymphoma are alive five years after diagnosis. And researchers are learning more about lymphoma risk factors. Talk to your healthcare provider if you think you might be at risk for lymphoma. If you are, they can help you understand what you can do to monitor and protect your health.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/02/2021.


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  • American Society of Clinical Oncologists. Lymphoma-Non Hodgkin; Subtypes. ( Accessed 11/02/2021.
  • Bassig BA, Lan Q, Rothman N, Zhang Y, Zheng T. Current Understanding Of Lifestyle And Environmental Factors And Risk Of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma: An Epidemiological Update. J Cancer Epidemiol. Accessed 11/02/2021.
  • Cerhan JR, Slager SL. Familial predisposition and genetic risk factors for lymphoma. ( Blood. Accessed 11/02/2021.
  • Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Signs and Symptoms. ( Accessed 11/02/2021.
  • StatPearls. Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. ( Accessed 11/02/2021.
  • U.S. National Institutes of Health. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Accessed 11/02/2021.

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