What is Anaplastic Lymphoma?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 13 August 2019
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Anaplastic lymphoma, also known as anaplastic large cell lymphoma, is a rare cancer of the lymphatic system. Patients with this condition experience an uncontrolled growth of T-cells, which are specialized cells that normally play a role in the immune system. In addition, the cells develop an anaplastic appearance, meaning that the high level of cell differentiation usually seen in lymphatic cells degrades, with the cells being simpler than they are in healthy individuals. The prognosis for patients with this condition is generally good, with appropriate treatment.

Causes for the development of lymphomas are not well understood, although environmental factors like exposure to radiation may play a role. Anaplastic lymphoma belongs to a larger group of cancers known as non-Hodgkin's lymphomas, and it is characterized as a T-cell lymphoma because it involves T-cells. This condition tends to be most common in young men, although women and older men can develop it as well.

There are two forms of anaplastic lymphoma. The more common, known as systemic lymphoma, involves the organs and other internal structures of the body. The patient usually experiences a painless swelling of the lymph nodes and can develop fevers, fatigue, and weight loss. More rarely, patients develop a cutaneous version, where lesions appear on the skin. In both cases, a biopsy needs to be taken to examine the cells under the microscope. The cells will appear anaplastic and they also express a protein called anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK).


The first line of treatment for this condition is chemotherapy. This is designed to kill the existing cancerous cells and suppress the production of new cells. Patients may also be advised to undergo radiation treatment. Sometimes, bone marrow therapy is involved as well, providing patients with a source of new bone marrow to produce white blood cells, including T-cells. Depending on the form a patient has and how advanced it is, treatment can be effective in as much as 80% of cases. The risk of recurrence varies.

As with other cancers, lymphoma research is ongoing. Patients diagnosed with anaplastic lymphoma should seek a specialist so they can get information about the latest treatment options. Physicians who specialize in caring for patients with lymphoma may also have information about clinical trials and ongoing research, providing patients with access to treatments that might not be available from other practitioners. Clinical trial participation in particular can provide valuable information for scientists, as well as allowing patients a chance at trying new treatments not available on the open market.



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