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What causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

2-minute read

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma begins with a change to the structure of DNA in the white blood cells in the lymph, a fluid that travels through lymph nodes and small vessels around your body that make up the lymphatic system.

The DNA gives the cells a basic set of instructions, such as when to grow and reproduce. The mutation in the DNA changes these instructions so that the cells keep growing.

The abnormal lymphocyte cells usually begin to multiply in one or more lymph nodes in a particular area of the body, such as your neck or groin. Over time, it is possible for the abnormal lymphocyte cells to spread into other parts of your body, such as your bone marrow, spleen, liver, skin and lungs.

The cause of the initial mutation that triggers lymphoma is unknown.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma risk factors

Known risk factors for developing lymphoma include:

  • having a weakened immune system due to conditions such as an inherited immune disorder, an autoimmune disease or HIV/AIDS infection
  • taking immunosuppressant drugs after an organ transplant
  • exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), the virus that causes glandular fever, or to the Human T-cell lymphotropic virus (HTLV)
  • a family history of lymphoma
  • having an autoimmune condition such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or Sjogren's syndrome
  • being infected with Helicobacter pylori bacteria (a cause of stomach ulcers)
  • having had chemotherapy or radiotherapy for an earlier cancer
  • having coeliac disease
  • exposure to some chemicals
  • eating a lot of meat and fat

However, most people with these risk factors do not develop lymphoma, and many people with lymphoma do not have any of these risk factors.

Last reviewed: December 2017

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