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Lymphoma: Blood Cancer That Is Potentially Curable When Detected Early

Dr. Pragnya Rao

A rare type of blood cancer that affects the cells that are part of your immune system.

Lymphoma is a type of blood cancer that affects the lymphocytes, i.e, the cells that are part of your immune system. There are less than 1 million cases per year in India, making this a rare, but treatable type of cancer. 

What are the symptoms?

To understand what the symptoms of lymphoma are, it is important to understand what the lymphatic system is all about. The lymphatic system in the body consists of lymph nodes, lymphoid tissues in various organs and a clear fluid that flows through the system. The primary function of the lymphatic system is to protect the body against foreign pathogens and to make special white blood cells called lymphocytes, which in turn confers immunity against illnesses. 

This cancer commonly affects lymph nodes, bone marrow, spleen, tonsils and the thymus. Symptoms suggestive of  lymphoma include:

  • Swollen, painful lymph nodes in the neck, groin, armpit, etc
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Abdominal distension
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weight loss
  • Generalised itching

Lymphoma vs leukemia vs myeloma

Lymphoma, leukemia and myeloma are all types of blood cancers but behave or present very differently from each other. Even the treatment aspects are different. 

  • Lymphoma involves lymphocytes, the cells of the lymphatic system present in lymph nodes and organs.
  • Leukemia involves all white blood cells, including lymphocytes. The abnormal cells develop in the bone marrow. 
  • Myeloma develops in the bone marrow, and affects the special type of white blood cells called plasma cells. 

Note: Lymphoma is also different from lymphedema, which is the collection of lymphatic fluid in the lymphatic system.

Diagnosis & types 

The diagnosis of lymphoma and the type, stage as well as prognosis is based on your clinical history (development of symptoms), family history, Chest X-ray, MRI, Biopsy from an enlarged lymph node, PET scans, etc. 

The staging and type are based on the type of lymphocytes affected by cancer. Broadly, there are two types of this cancer:

  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma(NHL): This is about three times more common than Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Most people who have lymphoma usually have NHL. This usually involves multiple lymph nodes, is widespread and commonly affects the bone marrow. The incidence of NHL increases with age. 
  • Hodgkin’s lymphoma(HL): Also called Hodgkin’s disease, this type of lymphoma is less common, but has a better prognosis. This cancer is more localized and rarely involves the bone marrow. This type commonly affects young adults.

This blood cancer on the whole, commonly occurs between the ages of 14-30 years. The prognosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma is better than the NHL. However, the prognosis of NHL improves with detection at its early stages.

Who is at risk?

The risk factors for developing lymphoma are different for Hodgkin’s and Non-Hodgkin’s.

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma risks Hodgkin’s lymphoma risks
Presence of immunodeficiency diseases like AIDS History of infectious mononucleosis
Autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis Individuals infected with HIV
Increasing age (>60years of age) Cases are diagnosed in the age group 20-30 years
Women are at a greater risk of developing NHL Men are more likely to develop this cancer type
Previous infection with Epstein-Barr virus, H. Pylori bacteria Individuals with a higher socioeconomic background
Chemical and radiation exposure Family history of Hodgkin’s disease

Treatment and survival

There are various treatment options for this type of blood cancer like chemotherapy, radiotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy as well as stem cell transplant therapy. 

  • Hodgkin’s lymphoma is highly curable, and generally has a good prognosis. People usually go on to live their normal, healthy lives once cured. 
  • The 5-year survival rate for those diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in India is no different from the rest of the world, which is about 60-70 percent. The prognosis becomes better when the cancer is detected early before it has spread aggressively. 

Although lymphoma is a rare type of cancer, it is important to note that due to its increasing incidence in the younger age groups, it is important to reach out to a doctor if you or a child you know is going through symptoms that might be suggestive of this cancer, such as enlarged lymph nodes, recurrent fever, weight loss, etc. You can reach out to a pediatrician or a general physician online on MFine if someone has such complaints, based on their age. 

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