What is Burkitt lymphoma?
Burkitt lymphoma is a type of B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It’s a rare type of cancer that often starts in people’s organs like their bellies (abdomen) or spleens. This condition typically affects children and, less frequently, younger adults. Burkitt lymphoma can be fatal. If you or your child are diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma, your healthcare provider may recommend immediate and intensive chemotherapy. Studies show people who receive treatment right away have high rates of remission, meaning after treatment they don’t have symptoms or signs of the condition.
Who is affected by Burkitt lymphoma?
There are three types of Burkitt lymphoma. Each type affects people differently depending on where people live, their age and if they have certain underlying health conditions. That said, people assigned male at birth are more likely to develop Burkitt lymphoma than people assigned female at birth. Here is information on Burkitt lymphoma types:
- Endemic: This is the most common type of Burkitt lymphoma. It typically affects children living in central Africa and is linked to the Epstein-Barr virus. This is the virus that causes mononucleosis. Children who have endemic Burkitt lymphoma usually develop tumors in their jaws or their facial bones.
- Sporadic: This is the type of Burkitt lymphoma seen in the United States. It affects more children than adults. Burkitt lymphoma accounts for more than 40% of all non-Hodgkin lymphoma in children. On average, children tend to develop this lymphoma type between ages 3 to 12.
- Immunodeficiency-related: This type of Burkitt lymphoma affects people who have acquired human immunodeficiency virus (HIV/AIDS). Rarely, it also may affect people whose immune systems are compromised or weakened by illness or medical treatment.
How common is Burkitt lymphoma?
This condition is a rare disease in North America and Europe. It is more common in Africa. Sporadic Burkitt lymphoma — the lymphoma usually seen in the United States — affects 4 in 1 million children under age 16. It makes up about 1% to 2% of all adult lymphomas.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes Burkitt lymphoma?
No one knows exactly what causes Burkitt lymphoma. Researchers investigating Burkitt lymphoma cells link the condition to changes in the MYC gene and other genes they’ve found in the cancer cells. The MYC gene controls some aspects of cell growth. Researchers are still investigating what causes the genetic changes.
In some cases, people in the United States who have Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) also have Burkitt lymphoma. But not everyone who has that virus develops Burkitt lymphoma.
What are the symptoms of Burkitt lymphoma?
Burkitt lymphoma affects adults and children in different ways. But both children and adults typically develop symptoms that come on suddenly and get rapidly get worse. Burkitt lymphoma tumors can double in size within hours. Increasingly severe symptoms may be a sign of fast-growing tumors. Many Burkitt lymphoma symptoms resemble common illnesses. But you should contact your healthcare provider right away if you or your child have any combination of symptoms listed below that are getting worse.
Some common symptoms of Burkitt lymphoma in children include:
- Belly (abdominal) pain.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Loss of appetite.
- Weakness and fatigue.
- Swollen lymph nodes.
Common symptoms in adults include:
- Weakness and fatigue.
- Unintended weight loss.
- Drenching night sweats.
Diagnosis and Tests
How do healthcare providers diagnose Burkitt lymphoma?
If your provider thinks you or your child have Burkitt lymphoma, they may start diagnosis by doing lymph node or bone marrow biopsies. Based on those test results, they may also do the following tests to learn more about the tumor:
- Computed tomography (CT) scans: Providers may do scans of your or your child’s chest, abdomen and pelvis for signs of cancer.
- Positron emission tomography (PET) scans: This is another imaging test that helps providers check for tumors.
- Cerebrospinal fluid cytology: Providers may obtain cerebrospinal fluids to check for cancer cells.
- Lactic dehydrogenase (LDH) test: Providers measure the amount of LDH in your blood or your child’s blood. Increased LDH may be a sign of lymphoma.
Management and Treatment
How do healthcare providers treat Burkitt lymphoma?
Providers typically move quickly to treat Burkitt lymphoma. They use a combination of very powerful chemotherapy drugs to destroy cancerous tumors and keep cancer cells from multiplying and creating more tumors.
Powerful chemotherapy can cause equally powerful side effects. That’s why your provider may recommend you or your child be treated in the hospital.
What are treatment side effects?
There are several common chemotherapy side effects such as fatigue, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea and constipation. But people receiving chemotherapy for fast-growing lymphomas like Burkitt lymphoma may develop tumor lysis syndrome.
The syndrome is a sign that chemotherapy is working. That’s because dying lymphoma cells release their contents in your bloodstream. Normally your kidneys take care of these contents. But a deluge of dead lymphoma cells can overwhelm your kidneys. When your kidneys can’t dispose of lymphoma contents, electrolytes can build up in your blood and cause heart, kidney, and nervous system issues.
Providers can prevent tumor lysis syndrome by making sure you or your child receive extra fluids. They may also prescribe certain drugs to reduce the chance you or your child will develop the syndrome.
How can I reduce the risk of developing Burkitt lymphoma?
There’s really nothing you can do to reduce that risk since researchers aren’t sure what causes Burkitt lymphoma. They do know there’s a link between changes in a gene that regulates cell growth, but they don’t know what causes the change.
Outlook / Prognosis
Can Burkitt lymphoma be cured?
When healthcare providers talk about curing Burkitt lymphoma, they usually mean the disease has gone into long-term remission. Remission means disease signs and symptoms have disappeared.
What is the survival rate of Burkitt lymphoma?
Most people diagnosed and quickly treated for Burkitt lymphoma have long-term remission, meaning they no longer show signs or symptoms of cancer. Children are more likely to have long-term remission than adults.
How do I take care of myself during treatment for Burkitt lymphoma?
Burkitt lymphoma treatment can be challenging. Apart from physical side effects, you or your child may need to stay in the hospital for days at a time, disrupting school, work and family life. Here are some suggestions that may help you:
- Ask your provider what to expect from your treatment so you can make plans. If you or your child will be in the hospital for several days, tap your network of family and friends who may be able to help friends at home.
- Treatment can be exhausting, and you or your child may feel fatigued even after completing treatment. Give yourself and them time to rest and heal.
- Some children feel self-conscious about treatment side effects or simply being away from friends and school for treatment. Ask your provider about child life specialist services. These are people with experience helping children navigate being sick. They’ll have suggestions that may help.
- Cancer treatment can affect your appetite or your child’s appetite at a time when eating well plays a big part in getting better. Your provider may recommend you speak with a nutritionist who can suggest foods and meal ideas.
When should I see my healthcare provider?
Your healthcare provider or your child’s provider will schedule regular follow-up appointments to monitor your health or your child’s health. These follow-up appointments may include blood tests and CT scans.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Healthcare providers have made huge progress in helping adults and children who have Burkitt lymphoma. This is a rare and aggressive cancer that can be life-threatening. Fortunately, providers have developed an arsenal of chemotherapies targeting the condition. Immediate intensive chemotherapy can send the disease into long-term remission. (Remission means people who complete treatment no longer have cancer symptoms or signs of cancer.) You may still be shocked and scared to learn you have or your child has a life-threatening illness. It may help to know your provider has proven treatments at hand. If this is your situation, ask your provider about treatment side effects so you can plan ahead for treatment — and for your life after Burkitt lymphoma.
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