What is Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma?

wiseGEEK Writer

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) refers to a group of cancers that affect the lymph system, most often starting in a single lymph node and then affecting lymph system organs like the spleen and tonsils. As the condition spreads, multiple lymph nodes may swell and other organs like the stomach may become affected. Unlike lymph node swelling resulting from viruses or bacteria, lymph node swelling in non-hodgkin's lymphoma is not typically painful.

Doctor taking notes
Doctor taking notes

The condition tends to be classified into three types:

  • Indolent or low grade
  • Aggressive or intermediate grade
  • Highly Aggressive or high-grade

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Non-hodgkin's lymphoma can affect anyone of any age. High-grade types seem to be most common among children, and indolent types most often affect the elderly. In all, men are more at risk for this type of cancer than are women, and people who work around chemical fertilizers may be more at risk for aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma than are others.

Symptoms of this condition include painless swelling of the lymph nodes, sudden weight loss, reddened patches on the skin and fatigue. All of these symptoms may be present with other illnesses, making the disease difficult to catch at first.

Though indolent or low-grade non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma sounds the most mild, it is usually most difficult to treat because many people don’t notice signs and symptoms until the disease is extremely advanced. The disease may not be curable, though new immunosuppressant drugs show some promise, and not having a cure doesn’t equate with higher mortality. Since indolent non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma progresses extremely slowly, it is possible to live with the condition for many years.

Aggressive NHL and highly aggressive forms respond to chemotherapy and/or radiation, and are usually diagnosed via needle biopsy of an affected lymph node. Other scans like x-rays and full-body scans, as well as blood tests may be done to determine whether the cancer has spread to other organs. Treatment in many ways is easier since response to chemotherapy/radiation tends to be good. If the condition occurs again, it most often does so within the first year after treatment. After three years of remission, people are considered fully cured.

Despite good news regarding treatment, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is not always survived. The current five-year survival rate is 52%, which does represent a significant increase in survival rate from the 1960s, when only about 30% of people responded to treatment. Many people who die from this cancer don’t die specifically from the cancer but from weakened immune states that make them susceptible to viral and bacterial illnesses.

Doctors and medical researchers are extremely invested in finding ways to raise survival rates of all forms of this cancer. Part of this is due to the fact that non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is the second most common cancer in most of the world. It remains frustrating too, to discuss or dictate prevention, since in many cases factors that may be responsible only slightly increase risk. There is, as yet, no known x-factor that makes people most likely to develop these cancers.

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