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How and Why You Should Determine Your Risk
Unfortunately, there are hundreds of types of cancers, and it’s difficult to know how to protect against all of them. In some cases, the trouble begins with poor lifestyle choices or environmental exposure, but in other types of cancer, risk factors aren’t so easy to control or avoid.
Hodgkin lymphoma (HL) is one such cancer. Lymphoma is one of the most common types of blood cancer, and this type of lymphoma can be very difficult to predict and track. Luckily, it’s generally much easier to treat than it is to predict, so knowing your risk factors — and early warning factors to watch for — can increase your outlook tremendously.
How Does Hodgkin Lymphoma Differ From Other Cancers?
To get a handle on HL, you must first understand the nature of lymphoma. This disease starts deep within the bones, in the white blood cells called lymphocytes. The lymphocytes are your body’s first line of defense, and support all of your biological systems.
Lymphoma causes lymphocytes to behave abnormally — some may divide faster than usual, or maybe they live longer than they should. These malfunctioning (cancerous) cells will eventually crowd out healthy white blood cells, and could spread through the lymph nodes to the blood and major organs.
There are two basic categories of lymphoma: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The Hodgkin variety is less common, and can be further divided into six types. The specific type of HL you have will determine the best course of treatment.
Who Develops Hodgkin Lymphoma?
Most cancers are difficult to predict, and HL is no exception. In many cases, an HL diagnosis comes as a complete surprise, perhaps because environmental factors don’t seem to factor in quite as much as they do in other kinds of cancer.
Major studies have found smoking and extreme obesity may increase your risk, but for the most part, HL risk factors are innate or biological, and generally out of your control.
In theory, anyone could develop HL, but it’s generally discovered between the ages of 20 and 34. However, many cases are also discovered after age 55. So, why are these two groups at the greatest risk?
Doctors aren’t sure why or how this cancer develops in certain age groups. However, HL is one of the few cancers with a peak of incidence in young adults. The cell mutations that naturally speed up with age could explain the surge in cases among older people.
Certain infections or procedures can also bump up your risk, especially those that impact your lymphatic system or your general immunity. Some of the conditions commonly linked to HL are:
- Epstein-Barr virus: a very common type of herpes virus that often affects children and young adults.
- Organ transplant: medicines to prevent organ rejection after a transplant can lower immunity, and a weak immune system raises your risk of developing HL.
- HIV or AIDS: those with either of these immune diseases are 11 times more likely to develop HL than the general population.
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma: the treatment for the other major type of lymphoma may raise your chances of developing HL later on.
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Those with autoimmune diseases like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis are also more prone to developing HL. Experts are still investigating whether it is the autoimmune disease itself, the treatment for the disease, or a common element in both HL and autoimmune conditions that causes the cancer to develop.
As is the case with many cancers, genetics could play a role, too. However, HL is not considered to be a “genetic” cancer — that is, it doesn’t seem to run in families. Those who have a close relative who has suffered from Hodgkin lymphoma are at a slightly higher risk of developing the disease.
However, neither genetic predisposition, nor an infection or compromised immune system, will necessarily lead to cancer. In fact, most people diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma don’t have any of these known risk factors.
Common Early Symptoms of HL
You might not be able to reduce your risk factors for HL, but you can improve your prognosis by catching it early. In fact, the outlook for HL is remarkably good: if you catch the disease in stage I or stage II, you have a 90 percent chance of beating it.
While many patients have a good chance of living a long and fruitful life after diagnosis, those chances go down the longer the cancer goes undetected. This is why it’s important to look out for these possible warning signs, and act on them quickly:
Lumps in the Neck
Since HL spreads through the lymph system, enlarged lymph nodes are an early sign of the disease. You have lymph nodes all over your body and any one of them could swell up, but many notice swollen nodes first in the neck or armpit, and sometimes the groin.
Although it is frightening to find a lump anywhere on your body, try not to jump to conclusions: a swollen lymph node most often points to infection, not cancer.
The swelling is a sign your immune system is fighting off an illness, but if the swelling remains for more than a couple of weeks, or there is no other sign of illness, get to your doctor for an examination.
Changes in Temperature and Appetite
As cancer interferes with your organ systems, your metabolism and body temperature can change. For instance, you might lose weight without any changes to your diet or exercise routine, or you may find you wake up sweating at night.
An infection will commonly bring along a low-grade fever, so swollen lymph nodes plus a bit of a temperature is probably nothing serious. However, a high fever without other virus symptoms, or one that persists for weeks, is something to be concerned about.
Fatigue and Breathlessness
Fatigue is a difficult symptom to judge because it could stem from so many sources. In many cases, it’s simply a sign your body needs a rest, but long-term fatigue can also point to a deeper health problem that’s taxing your energy stores.
If you’re feeling weak and tired and can’t explain why, don’t wait to see if the discomfort goes away on its own. Breathlessness is another red flag: when affected lymph nodes are in the chest, you might become short of breath more often, or suffer from coughing fits.
Treatment options for Hodgkin lymphoma are varied, and your doctor will put together a well-rounded plan of attack based on your medical history, age and stage of HL. If treatment is successful (as it so often is), there is a very good chance your HL will never come back.