A doctor examining lymph nodes.
Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma often results in swollen lymph nodes.

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is more common than Hodgkin’s lymphoma, so it is important to know the symptoms of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that affects the lymphatic system.

The two major functions of the lymphatic system are to fight off infections and move fluid throughout the body; when this part of the body is compromised, it makes it harder for your body to defend itself against invaders.

What Is Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma?

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) is a type of cancer that starts in the lymphatic system. NHL is a blanket term that includes many types of lymphoma with shared characteristics. NHL has several subtypes, the two most common being diffuse large B-cell lymphoma and follicular lymphoma. With NHL, tumors develop from a type of white blood cells, called lymphocytes. NHL may start as cancerous lymphocytes in your lymph nodes or lymph tissues and the cancer can spread to other areas of the lymphatic system. Cancer starts when normal cells mutate or grow out of control.

Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma Found in Lymphocytes

NHL generally starts in the white blood cells, typically in either the B cells or T cells. There are other types of lymphocytes where NHL can originate as well, but these are less common. The type of lymphoma a person gets depends on which type of lymphocyte is affected, either the B or T cells (in addition to other factors). Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • B cells produce antibodies. The antibodies they produce attach to the germs and other foreign invaders. They’ll either neutralize the threat to the body or mark the germs so that other parts of the immune system destroy the organism. Most non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma originates in B cells.
  • T cells help kill off foreign invaders. Some T cells destroy germs or abnormal cells they find. Other T cells increase or slow the activity of other immune system cells in order to kill off the organism. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma occurs less often in the T cells than the B cells.

Main Symptoms of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

Symptoms will vary depending on the type of lymphoma that is contracted. Symptoms can include:

  • Painless, swollen lymph nodes located in the neck, armpits, or groin
  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing
  • Breathing issues
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Unexplained weight loss

Persistent symptoms need to be seen by a physician. Don’t hesitate to contact your doctor if you are concerned about any symptoms you have.

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Who’s at Risk?

Research is constant when it comes to understanding NHL and that research includes risk factors. Many who are diagnosed with NHL have risk factors that are not obvious. With the risk factors below, there are many people who never develop NHL in spite of being in one of the categories. Risk factors can include:

  • Taking medications that suppress the immune system. The body’s ability to fight off new illnesses is reduced by certain medications prescribed for some conditions. There is a greater chance of developing lymphoma if you have a weakened immune system.
  • Being infected with certain viruses and bacteria. Certain infections appear to increase your risk, including HIV and Epstein-Barr infection.
  • Exposure to chemicals. Pesticides, for example, may increase your risk.
  • Age. NHL can occur at any age, but the older you get, your risk increases. An NHL diagnosis is most common in those 60 or older. While NHL most often affects adults, children can get it too.
  • Gender. Men have slightly greater chance of developing NHL.
  • Race. Research shows that NHL is more common in Caucasians.
  • Those with autoimmune diseases. Conditions where the immune system attacks itself, like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, leaves the body more susceptible to NHL.
  • Radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Those who have gone through these treatments for other cancers may be at greater risk of contracting NHL.

Causes of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

The exact cause of NHL is unknown. Since lymphomas are a diverse group of cancers, causes are speculative as more research is needed before an exact cause can be determined.

One potential cause is changes in genetics. Oncogenes help with cell growth, division and assist cells with staying alive. Tumor suppressor genes make cells die off at the right time so there is not an overcrowding of cells. Cancers can be caused by DNA mutations that affect how oncogenes or tumor suppressor genes operate. When these two types of genes are affected, cells can grow out of control, crowd out normal cells and reduce body’s ability to protect itself from invaders.

Two Groupings of Lymphomas

NHL can be grouped into one of two categories depending on how fast the lymphoma spreads. Indolent lymphomas are slower to grow and spread; they may not need to be treated right away, but they will need to be monitored. Aggressive lymphomas grow and spread quickly. Treatment needs to start immediately to try and get this type of cancer under control. Some types of lymphoma do not fit neatly into either of these two categories and fall into a miscellaneous third category.

Treatments for Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

Treatment starts by determining specifics about the type of cancer, so doctors can make an informed decision on which treatments will be the most beneficial. The type of NHL a patient is treated for will depend on which lymphocyte is affected, the stage of the cancer and other factors. NHL can spread to other parts of the lymph system, or other parts of the body, if left untreated.

Treatments for NHL can include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Targeted therapy drugs
  • Radiation therapy
  • High dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant
  • Surgery
  • Clinical trials
  • Complementary and alternative methods (like vitamins, herbs, special diets, acupuncture, massage and more)

Some patients choose to stop treatment or elect not to have treatment at all. Everyone’s circumstance and preference for care is different.

Being aware of the symptoms of NHL will benefit the future of your lymphatic system. Taking care of your lymphatic system will help your body protect itself from bacteria, germs and other organisms that can bring you harm.

If you think you have any of the symptoms we have talked about, make sure you talk to your doctor so you can get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan in order.