An aggressive lymphoma, also known as a high-grade lymphoma, is a type of cancer found in the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is made up of body organs such as the spleen and thymus, together with a network of fluid-filled tubes. Inside the lymphatic system, white blood cells known as lymphocytes help to destroy viruses, bacteria and other harmful matter, forming part of the body's immune system. A lymphoma generally causes abnormal production of these blood cells, reducing the body's resistance to disease. Some types of lymphomas are classed as high-grade, intermediate or low-grade, and high-grade is the most aggressive lymphoma, as it has a tendency to grow more quickly, requiring urgent treatment.
There are two main types of lymphoma, known as Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is more common and around 30 varieties exist, each behaving individually and responding to different treatment. Both Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma result from the production of abnormal lymphocytes, which become cancerous and travel inside the lymphatic system. Often, these cancerous cells build up in what are called lymph nodes, or lymph glands, which then enlarge. The affected person may then notice that a gland in the groin, neck or armpit is swollen.
Lymphoma symptoms include weight loss, tiredness, fever or chest pain, and in the case of an aggressive lymphoma, loss of appetite. Anyone with a suppressed immune system, such as a person with HIV or AIDS, has a greater risk of developing a lymphoma, but in most cases the cause is unknown. A lymphoma may be diagnosed by taking a sample from a suspicious swelling and examining it under a microscope. Often, a piece of bone marrow is removed and checked for abnormal cells, as the bone marrow is one of the places where blood cells are made.
Imaging scans of the whole body, such as with a magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI), can help to determine whether or not the cancer has spread. This is useful because the chance of curing a lymphoma depends on its size and how far it has traveled through the body. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma may be classed as low-grade, or indolent, lymphoma, intermediate-grade lymphoma, or high-grade, aggressive lymphoma, with the outlook becoming worse as the grade increases.
Low-grade, or indolent, lymphomas typically grow very slowly but do not respond to treatment as well as higher grade cancers. They are usually monitored, and treatment may not be needed for a number of years. Intermediate-grade lymphomas progress more quickly and are treated straight away, but can often be cured. An aggressive lymphoma grows extremely rapidly, but with urgent treatment a cure may be possible. Treatment of an aggressive lymphoma generally involves chemotherapy and radiotherapy.