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Quick Facts

Non-Hodgkin Lymphomas

(Non-Hodgkin's Lymphomas)


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Oct 2019| Content last modified Oct 2019
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What are non-Hodgkin lymphomas?

Lymphoma is cancer of a type of white blood cell called a lymphocyte. Lymphocytes and other white blood cells help your body fight disease.

Lymphocytes travel through your blood vessels and then through your lymphatic system. Your lymphatic system is made up of your lymph nodes and lymph vessels. Lymph nodes are small bean-shaped organs that fight disease and are in your neck, groin, and armpits.

In lymphoma, your lymphocytes grow out of control and build up in your lymph nodes and sometimes your liver, spleen, and inside your bones (your bone marrow).

Non-Hodgkin lymphomas are a group of many different lymphomas. They can involve several different types of lymphocyte. Hodgkin lymphoma involves one particular type of lymphocyte.

  • Non-Hodgkin lymphomas are more common than Hodgkin lymphoma

  • Most people are cured or survive for many years

  • Swollen, enlarged lymph nodes are a symptom of non-Hodgkin lymphomas—your lymph nodes get bigger, but they aren’t usually painful

  • You may have pain or breathing problems if swollen lymph nodes press on your organs

  • Treatment may include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, other medicines called monoclonal antibodies, or a combination of these treatments

Doctors group non-Hodgkin lymphomas into 2 main types:

  • Indolent lymphoma, which grows slowly

  • Aggressive lymphoma, which grows quickly

Indolent lymphoma is easier to treat, and you can live with it for many years. But it usually can’t be cured. Aggressive lymphoma needs intense treatment but can often be cured.

You can get non-Hodgkin lymphomas at any age.

What causes non-Hodgkin lymphomas?

Doctors don’t know what causes non-Hodgkin lymphomas. Viruses may cause some types.

What are the symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphomas?

At first:

  • Lymph nodes in your neck, under your arms, or in your groin swell quickly and get bigger—but usually don’t hurt

Later, you may have other symptoms like:

  • Coughing or problems breathing

  • Swelling in your face, neck, arms, and legs

  • Not feeling hungry or throwing up

  • Constipation (trouble passing poop)

  • Belly pain

  • Feeling weak and tired

  • Bruising or bleeding more easily

In children, first symptoms may be different and can include:

  • Anemia (a low number of red blood cells)

  • Rash

  • Weakness and unusual sensations

How can doctors tell if I have a non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

Doctors suspect non-Hodgkin lymphoma when you have a lot of swollen, painless lymph nodes that don't go away after a few weeks.

To make the diagnosis, doctors do a:

  • Biopsy (making a small cut to take out a swollen lymph node to look at under a microscope)

If doctors suspect non-Hodgkin lymphoma from your symptoms, they will do a lymph node biopsy (taking out part of the tissue to look at under a microscope).

Before doctors treat your non-Hodgkin lymphoma, they need to see how far it has spread. Doctors use several tests to check the spread of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, such as:

  • Bone marrow biopsy

  • Chest x-rays

  • CT scan of your chest, belly area, and pelvis

How do doctors treat non-Hodgkin lymphomas?

If you have indolent lymphoma that hasn’t spread, you may not need treatment for years. Otherwise, doctors will start treatment right away. The treatment you need depends on what type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma you have and how far it has spread.

Treatment of your non-Hodgkin lymphoma may include:

If your lymphoma comes back later after successful treatment (relapses), doctors may try:

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Risks of Radiation in Medical Imaging
Imaging tests are important diagnostic tools, but imaging tests that use radiation have certain risks. The more radiation a person has been exposed to over his or her lifetime, the greater the risk of cancer and possibly tissue damage. Which of the following imaging tests exposes the recipient to the largest amount of radiation?
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