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What causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma begins with a change to the structure of DNA in the white blood cells in the lymph.

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
  • infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), in conjunction with an immune deficiency
  • a family history of lymphoma
  • tobacco smoking.

Sources: Cancer Australia (Lymphoma), NHS Choices,UK (Causes of non-Hodgkin Lymphoma)

Last reviewed: September 2015

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