Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Lymphoma

7-minute read

What is lymphoma?

Lymphoma is a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system. Although lymphoma is a serious disease, good treatment options are available.

The lymphatic system is made up of a network of tubes (lymph vessels) and glands (lymph nodes) throughout your body. It collects and filters waste products from the body in a clear fluid called lymph. The lymph also contains white blood cells called lymphocytes, which fight infection.

Lymphoma occurs when the lymphocytes are damaged. This damage can make them cancerous, which is where they grow and multiply abnormally. When this happens, the abnormal lymphocytes lose their ability to fight off infections.

There are 2 main types of lymphoma: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The symptoms of Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma are similar, but they spread and are treated differently.

What are the symptoms of lymphoma?

The first symptom of lymphoma is often a painless swelling in one or more lymph node, usually in the neck, armpit or groin. The swelling is caused by a build-up of abnormal lymphocytes (white blood cells) in the lymph node.

Many people develop swollen nodes due to an infection. If you have swollen nodes, don’t panic — just get them checked by a doctor.

Other symptoms of lymphoma include:

  • unexplained tiredness or fatigue
  • night sweats or fever
  • unexplained poor appetite or weight loss
  • widespread itching
  • bruising or bleeding easily
  • trouble getting over infections
  • pain in the chest or stomach area
  • swollen tummy
  • unexplained, persistent cough or shortness of breath
  • headaches or vision changes
  • red patches on the skin

What causes lymphoma?

The cause of lymphoma is unknown.

It is more common in people who:

Even if you have one or more of these risk factors, it does not mean you will develop lymphoma.

When should I see my doctor?

Many other conditions, such as the flu or a virus, can have similar symptoms to lymphoma. If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, and you do not know the cause, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible.

How is lymphoma diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects you have lymphoma, they may perform a physical examination. This includes feeling the lymph nodes in your neck, underarm or groin for signs of swelling; and your stomach area to check for swollen organs.

They may also ask you about other symptoms and talk to you about your health generally.

If your doctor suspects you may have lymphoma, you will probably be asked to have a biopsy. A biopsy involves removing some or all of an affected lymph node and some lymphocytes (white blood cells) to get a tissue sample. Biopsies can be carried out under local or general anaesthetic.

A pathologist then views the sample under a microscope in a laboratory. If cancerous cells are found, the type of lymphoma (Hodgkin or non-Hodgkin) will also be confirmed.

You may be asked to have other tests, such as:

Some of these tests aim to check your general health, while others aim to identify the stage of the lymphoma — that is, the extent to which it has spread in the body.

This information is important to help work out the best treatment.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — Our Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use our Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is lymphoma treated?

If you are having treatment for lymphoma, the choice of treatment depends on:

  • the type of lymphoma (Hodgkin or non-Hodgkin)
  • the stage of lymphoma — whether or not the disease has spread to other areas of the body
  • how fast it is likely to grow
  • your age and general health
  • your symptoms
  • whether or not you have had any treatments before
  • what you want

The main treatment options for lymphoma are chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which can be used on their own or in combination.

Other treatment options include:

  • a type of immunotherapy called monoclonal antibodies. Immunotherapy uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer
  • targeted therapy drugs, which attack specific particles (molecules) in cancer cells to stop the cancer growing or to reduce its size
  • steroids, to increase the effect of the chemotherapy

In some cases, a stem cell transplant is needed if the lymphoma has recurred (come back) or is likely to recur in the future.

Depending on where you live, the treatment of lymphoma may be managed by a group of health professionals called a multidisciplinary team. This team may include an oncologist (cancer specialist), a radiotherapist, a surgeon, a nurse, a social worker and other health professionals.

In some people with slow-growing tumours, doctors may recommend a watch and wait approach. This means they get regular check-ups, and are only treated when the lymphoma starts to grow faster.

If you are in complete remission from lymphoma, it’s best not to have a lot of CT scans as these can expose you to unnecessary radiation. For more information, visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.

What are the side effects of lymphoma treatments?

Like all cancer treatments, lymphoma treatments can cause a wide range of side effects and complications. But not everybody experiences the same side effects of treatment, and often they are mild and can be dealt with easily.

If you are being treated for lymphoma, some of the medicines or radiation used may cause you to:

  • lose some or all of your hair temporarily
  • feel nauseous
  • vomit
  • feel very tired and washed out
  • have a sore mouth
  • have headaches
  • have sore skin from radiation
  • have an increased risk of infections

These side effects are temporary, and you can talk to your healthcare team about things you can do to prevent them or reduce them.

Infections

Lymphoma treatments can weaken your immune system, increasing your risk of infection. As a precaution, you may be given antibiotics.

If you are being treated for lymphoma and think you have an infection, tell your doctor immediately. Untreated infections can be very serious for people having cancer treatment. The symptoms of infection include:

Infertility

Some lymphoma treatments can cause infertility. Infertility is often temporary, but in some cases it can be permanent.

Ask your treatment team if you are at high risk of infertility. In some cases, men may be able to store samples of their sperm, and women may be able to freeze eggs to use after treatment is over.

Doctors strongly recommend that people having chemotherapy use contraception during treatment and for 3 months after, as chemotherapy can damage embryos.

Second cancer

People who’ve had one cancer are at higher risk of having another one. A second cancer can be the same type or different to the first cancer. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy also further increase this risk.

Having a healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk of getting a second cancer. That means not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, eating nutritious food and exercising regularly.

It is important to see you doctor about any suspicious symptoms.

Other problems

Lymphoma treatments can also increase your risk of getting heart and lung disease. A diagnosis of cancer can also increase your risk of suffering from depression.

Resources and support

Cancer Council Australia has detailed information about lymphoma. Support is also available by calling the Cancer Council helpline on 13 11 20.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2021


Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Hodgkin lymphoma - Leukaemia Foundation

Hodgkin lymphoma Listen What is Hodgkin lymphoma? Hodgkin lymphoma arises when developing lymphocytes undergo a malignant change and multiply in an uncontrolled way

Read more on Leukaemia Foundation website

Hodgkin lymphoma | Causes, Symptoms & Treatments | Cancer Council

What is hodgkin lymphoma? Find out about the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment options for Hodgkin lymphoma

Read more on Cancer Council Australia website

Lymphoma | Causes, Symptoms & Treatments | Cancer Council

What is lymphoma? Find out about the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment options for Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Read more on Cancer Council Australia website

Hodgkin lymphoma | Cancer Institute NSW

Hodgkin lymphoma is a type of blood or haematological cancer that starts in white blood cells known as lymphocytes

Read more on Cancer Institute NSW website

Hodgkin's Lymphoma Information, Treatment & Support | Cancer

Hodgkin's Lymphoma covers multiple types of conditions that attack the immune system. Learn more about causes, diagnosis and treatments with Canteen.

Read more on Canteen website

Rare Cancers Australia - Hodgkin Lymphoma Nodular Lymphocyte Predominance

Nodular lymphocyte-predominant Hodgkin lymphoma is an uncommon type of Hodgkin lymphoma – a type of cancer that starts in the lymphatic system.

Read more on Rare Cancers Australia website

Rare Cancers Australia - Hodgkin Lymphoma - Adult

Adult Hodgkin lymphoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the lymph system.

Read more on Rare Cancers Australia website

Rare Cancers Australia - Mantle Cell Lymphoma

Mantle cell lymphoma is a rare type of non Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

Read more on Rare Cancers Australia website

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma | Cancer Australia Childrens Cancers

Information on Non-Hodgkin lymphoma including risk factors, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.

Read more on Cancer Australia website

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma - Leukaemia Foundation

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma Listen What is non-Hodgkin lymphoma? Each year in Australia around 5000 people are diagnosed with lymphoma, making it the sixth most common type of cancer in the country

Read more on Leukaemia Foundation website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo