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Non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Overview

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (which is also known as 'B-cell' and 'T-cell lymphomas') is a cancer of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a network of vessels and glands spread throughout your body. It is also part of your immune system. Clear fluid called 'lymph' flows through the lymphatic vessels and contains infection-fighting white blood cells known as 'lymphocytes'.

In lymphoma, these lymphocytes start to multiply in an abnormal way and begin to collect in certain parts of the lymphatic system, such as the lymph nodes (glands). The affected lymphocytes lose their infection-fighting properties making you more vulnerable to infection.

The most common symptom of non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a painless swelling in a lymph node, usually in the neck, armpit or groin.

The usual way to confirm a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma is by carrying out a biopsy (testing a sample of affected lymph node tissue).

Personal story: non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma can be both emotionally and practically challenging. Listening to others who have experienced similar situations is often re-assuring and can be helpful for you, your loved ones or when preparing questions for your doctor or a specialist.

Watch this video about a patient's experience after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

 

Read the related video transcript >

More information about this video >


Sources: healthtalkonline.org (Lymphoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, interview 31), NHS Choices, UK (Lymphoma, non-Hodgkin's)
Video Copyright: ©2013 University of Oxford. Used under licence from DIPEx. All rights reserved.

Just diagnosed

There are many subtypes of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but they can generally be put into one of two broad categories:

  • high-grade or aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma where the cancer develops quickly and aggressively
  • low-grade or indolent non-Hodgkin lymphoma where the cancer develops slowly, and you may not experience any symptoms for many years.

Although high-grade non-Hodgkin lymphoma is an aggressive form of cancer, it can be cured with intensive treatment in around 30% of people.

Treatments for non-Hodgkin lymphoma include chemotherapy, radiotherapy and biological therapy.

Your recommended treatment plan will take into consideration your general health and age, because many of the treatments have side effects that can be difficult if you have other health problems.

Survival rates for non-Hodgkin lymphoma vary greatly depending on the exact type, grade and stage of the lymphoma, and the person's age.

Source: NHS Choices, UK (Lymphoma, non-Hodgkin's)

Living with

Survival after non-Hodgkin lymphoma is relatively good in Australia compared with other countries for which survival data are available.

Having a weakened immune system is a common complication of lymphoma treatment. Even if your lymphatic system is restored to normal, many of the medications that treat non-Hodgkin lymphoma weaken your immune system.

This means you are more vulnerable to infections, and there is an increased risk of developing serious complications from infections. You may be advised to take regular doses of antibiotics to prevent infections occurring in the early stages after treatment. Your immune system will usually recover in the months and years after treatment.

If you think you might have an infection, you must report any symptoms to your doctor immediately because prompt treatment may be needed to prevent serious complications. This is particularly important in the first few months after treatment.

Symptoms of infection include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • aching muscles
  • diarrhoea
  • tiredness
  • a painful blistering rash.

Many of the treatments for lymphoma can cause infertility, which is often temporary, but in some cases it may be a permanent side effect.

Sources: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma - PDF document), NHS Choices, UK (Complications of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma)

 

Facts & figures

  • Around 3,500 people are diagnosed with B-cell or T-cell lymphoma in Australia making them the most common type of blood cancer diagnosed. They represent the sixth most common type of cancer in men, and the fifth most common type of cancer in women overall.
  • Lymphomas can occur at any age, but they are more common in adults over the age of 50 years who account for over 70% of all cases.
  • Around 40 children (0-14 years) are diagnosed with lymphoma in Australia each year.
  • Lymphomas occur more frequently in men than in women.
  • Australian males had the highest five-year relative survival of the selected countries, which ranged from 55% in Australia to 38% in Wales.
  • For Australian females, the five-year relative survival proportion was 56% which was lower than in Iceland (72%), similar to the United States (57%), and higher than all other selected countries.
  • An examination of five-year relative survival by age group for the United States, England and Wales showed consistent decreases similar to Australia in survival rates as age increased. However, survival for those diagnosed after age 50 tended to be lower in Australia.

Sources: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma - PDF document), Leukaemia Foundation (B and T-cell lymphomas)

Last reviewed: 
February, 2013