What is lymphoma?

Updated 10 Aug 2017

Lymphoma is a type of blood cancer that affects blood cells called lymphocytes and the lymphocyte-producing cells in your body.

Lymphocytes are one type of white blood cell and are part of the immune system, which defends the body against infection. When you have lymphoma some of your lymphocytes don’t work properly. Sometimes they aren’t developed fully (they’re immature), they divide in an abnormal way, or they don’t die when they should.

These abnormal lymphocytes can build up in your lymph nodes (also known as glands – bean-shaped organs that act as a filter to catch viruses, bacteria and other foreign material), causing them to swell and form a lump.

Types of lymphoma

There are two main kinds of lymphoma – Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Hodgkin lymphoma (HL)

In Hodgkin lymphoma, the abnormal cells are called Reed–Sternberg cells; these are always present if you have Hodgkin lymphoma. Reed–Sternberg cells are a type of white blood cell called a B lymphocyte that has become cancerous.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL)

Any other lymphoma without these cells is called a non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). There are lots of different types of NHL. To make things clearer, doctors put non-Hodgkin lymphomas into two groups depending on how fast they grow and spread.

  • Low-grade NHL: this usually develops slowly and is said to be a more ‘chronic’ disease. This means that people may not need treatment for many years.
  • High-grade NHL: this refers to lymphoma that usually develops quickly and needs treatment.

As with many forms of cancer, the signs and symptoms of lymphoma can vary from person to person, so it’s very important to get tested by a professional for a full diagnosis. This will determine which specialist you're referred to and make sure you get the best care.

When you’re looking for information about lymphoma, it really helps to know the proper medical diagnosis so that you can find the right information.

> Find out more about Hodgkin lymphoma,  Low-grade NHL or High-grade NHL

 

What causes lymphoma?

Around 12,000 people are diagnosed with a type of lymphoma every year. However, in many cases, we still don’t know what causes lymphoma. We know that some things that we can’t change have an impact on the chance of someone getting lymphoma, like age and gender. We also know that there are sometimes external factors which can have an impact, like having certain infections or viruses or being exposed to very high levels of radiation.

Although in most cases lymphoma doesn’t run in families, there’s some evidence that having a parent, child, brother or sister with lymphoma or another blood or lymphatic cancer can slightly increase your risk. We don’t know if this is because of a genetic fault or if it’s because members of the same family are more likely to have the same type of lifestyle.

 

Your immune and lymphatic system

Your lymphatic system

Lymphoma is a disease that affects your lymphatic system. The different types of lymphoma depend on what types of cells are affected.

The lymphatic system is part of your body’s natural defence against infection, which is known as the immune system. Within your lymphatic system there’s a network of thin tubes called lymph vessels that run around your body.

The vessels collect fluid called lymph and return it to your blood. Lymph bathes all the cells in your body. It contains lots of lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell that fights infection), which carry nutrients and remove bacteria from infected areas.

Along the lymph vessels are small lumps of tissue called lymph nodes or lymph glands. There are many of these in your body. It may be possible for you to feel normal lymph nodes in the neck and groin, particularly if you’re slim.

If you get an infection when you’re healthy, these can swell and become tender, which people may refer to as swollen glands. As lymphocytes pass through the lymph nodes, they are changed and activated to fight certain types of infection. Your spleen is also part of your lymphatic system. It can do some of the same work as the lymph nodes. It also filters out old or damaged cells from the blood stream and helps to fight infection.

Your immune system

Your immune system is a network of cells, tissues and organs that protect your body against infection. It’s able to react quickly to infections it’s seen before, and lymphocytes play an important role in this. There are lots of different kinds of lymphocyte, including ones called T cells and B cells. These can be affected when you have lymphoma, which can increase the risk of infections. Your healthcare team can let you know about the ways to reduce your risk.

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