Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system. Cancer is a disease of the body’s cells. Normally cells in our body divide and grow in a controlled way. But sometimes cells keep dividing and grow out of control. This is how cancer develops.

In lymphoma, white blood cells called lymphocytes become abnormal and grow out of control. Over time, there are enough of these cells to make a lump. The most common place for this to happen is in the lymph nodes. But lymphoma can also affect other parts of the body.

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The lymphatic system

The lymphatic system is part of the body’s immune system. This helps protect us from infection and disease. The lymphatic system also drains fluid from the body’s tissues back into the blood.

Lymph nodes (sometimes called lymph glands) are an important part of the lymphatic system. There are groups of lymph nodes throughout the body, including in the:

  • tummy area (abdomen) 
  • chest
  • neck
  • armpit
  • groin (where the top of your leg joins your body).

They are connected by a network of tiny tubes called lymph vessels.

A fluid called lymph travels through the lymph vessels. Lymph carries white blood cells called lymphocytes around the body to fight infections and disease.

Lymphocytes are made in a spongy material in the middle of bones. This is called bone marrow. They start as undeveloped cells, called stem cells. They go through different stages until they are fully developed (mature), and ready to fight infections and disease.

Types of lymphoma

There are lots of types of lymphoma. Different types develop and are treated in different ways. A doctor can only find out your type of lymphoma by taking a biopsy and looking at it under a microscope.

The two main types of lymphoma are:

Symptoms of lymphoma

The most common symptom of lymphoma is a lump, where a lymph node is swollen. This is usually in the neck, armpit or groin. But other areas of lymph nodes can be affected and cause symptoms too. The lump is not usually painful, but some people may find that it aches.

Other symptoms may include:

  • heavy drenching sweats, especially at night
  • unexplained high temperatures
  • unexplained weight loss
  • tiredness
  • a cough or breathlessness
  • an itch all over the body that doesn’t go away.
  • tummy pain (non-Hodgkin lymphoma)
  • feeling full and having no appetite (non-Hodgkin lymphoma)

Most of these symptoms can also be caused by other illnesses. For example, swollen lymph nodes, high temperatures and sweats may be caused by an infection. But if you have any of these symptoms or are worried about Hodgkin lymphoma, go to see your GP. If they think you could have Hodgkin lymphoma, they can arrange tests or arrange for you to see a specialist doctor

Tests for lymphoma

Most of the symptoms caused by lymphoma can also be caused by other illnesses. But it’s still important to get them checked. If you have any symptoms or are worried about lymphoma, talk to your GP.  

Visiting your GP  

Your GP will examine you. They may arrange for you to have blood tests or scans. They will refer you to a specialist doctor at the hospital if:  

  • they think you might have lymphoma  
  • they don’t know what is causing your symptoms.  

At the hospital  

The specialist doctor will examine you again and arrange more tests. The most important test for lymphoma is a biopsy. This involves a doctor or nurse taking a sample of tissue from a lump or abnormal area that might be lymphoma. They may use a scan such as an ultrasound or CT scan to guide them to the right area. Then they send the tissue sample to a laboratory to be checked. 

Most lymphomas affect the lymph nodes, so the most common place to take a biopsy from is a swollen lymph node. You may have all or part of the lymph node removed. This might be done:  

  • using a local anaesthetic to numb the area 
  • under a general anaesthetic, while you are asleep. 

You may have to wait up to two weeks for the results of a biopsy. If the biopsy shows signs of lymphoma, you will have more tests to find out which areas of your body are affected.  

Having more tests 

Your doctor will explain which tests you need. They might include:  

You may also have other tests, such as blood tests or x-rays. These are to check your general health and how your heart, lungs, liver and kidneys are working.  

All these tests help your doctors plan the right treatments for you.  

More information about tests and scans

Waiting for test results 

Waiting for test results can be a worrying time. It can help to talk to your family and friends about how you feel. You can also contact your doctor or team at the hospital if you have any problems, or need more support. 

The two main types of lymphoma are:

Based on content originally produced by Macmillan Cancer Support