Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

Ignacio first noticed the signs of his non-Hodgkin lymphoma when he had trouble breathing and was coughing a lot during football practice. He also started getting a fever but didn't know why. His parents took him to the doctor. After doing tests and a biopsy, Ignacio's doctors diagnosed him with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

At first, Ignacio was scared when he heard that non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a kind of cancer. But he quickly learned that it's treatable, especially if it's caught early. Most people who have it can be cured.

What Is Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma?

A lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a part of the body's immune system. It helps filter out bacteria, viruses, and other unwanted substances. When someone has non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer cells form in the lymphatic system and start to grow.

Most of the time, you're only aware of your lymphatic system when the lymph nodes swell up. This often happens when a person is sick — a sign that the lymphatic system is working hard to filter harmful substances out of the body.

There are several different types of lymphomas. A lymphoma can be Hodgkin or non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Doctors tell which kind of lymphoma someone has based on the way the cells look.

How Do People Get It?

No one really knows what causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Doctors know that some things may increase a person's chances of getting it, like having AIDS or other conditions that weaken the immune system.

People with a brother or sister who has had non-Hodgkin lymphoma are also more likely to get it. Of course, having a sibling with the disease doesn't mean you will definitely get it. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma isn't contagious — you can't catch it from or give it to someone.

Signs of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

The signs of non-Hodgkin lymphoma vary from person to person depending on the type of lymphoma and where a tumor is in the body. Some people may feel stomach pain, have constipation, and be less hungry than usual. Others may have trouble breathing, a hard time swallowing, and cough, wheeze or feel chest pain.

Other signs of lymphoma may include:

For many people with lymphoma, the first sign is swollen lymph nodes. They're usually in the neck, armpits, and groin. But swollen lymph nodes do not usually mean someone has cancer. Most of the time, swollen lymph nodes are a sign of an infection or other common illness.

Because all the signs of lymphoma can be caused by other conditions, only a doctor can figure out what's really wrong.

What Do Doctors Do?

If your family doctor thinks you might have non-Hodgkin lymphoma, he or she will send you to an oncologist — a doctor who specializes in cancer. The oncologist will then do tests, like a biopsy, to be sure that's what's wrong.


If someone's swollen lymph nodes don't go down after other treatments, the oncologist may want to do a biopsy.
Doctors do different kinds of biopsies to test for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, including:

During a biopsy, the doctor will use anesthesia so the patient feels no pain. Depending on the kind of biopsy, this might be local anesthesia (where part of the body is numbed) or general anesthesia (where a person is asleep).

Other Tests

A doctor may also do these tests to help decide if a person has non-Hodgkin lymphoma:

After doctors have made a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, they use what's called a "staging system" to figure out how much the disease has affected the body. For example, a cancer is at stage one, it means it hasn't affected as much of the body as a cancer at stage four. Knowing the stage the disease is in helps the doctor decide the best treatment.

How Is It Treated?

Teens with non-Hodgkin lymphoma are usually treated in a pediatric cancer center by a team of experts in childhood cancers. Some of the treatments people with non-Hodgkin lymphoma get are:

For people getting a lot of chemo or radiation treatments, doctors may do bone marrow transplants or stem cell transplants. These transplants replace cells damaged by chemo and radiation.

To do a transplant, doctors will put healthy new bone marrow or blood cells into the patient's bloodstream through an IV. These healthy new cells are either taken from the patient before treatment or donated by another person.

What to Expect

If you have non-Hodgkin lymphoma, you know how scary it can feel. There's a lot to deal with emotionally. On top of that, appointments and tests can be tiring, and treatments might make you feel lousy.

People who are being treated with chemotherapy or radiation can expect side effects from these treatments. Most side effects are temporary and will go away after a few weeks. But, as with all medical treatments, each person feels them differently. How strong side effects are and how long they last depends on the person and the treatment they're getting.

The most common short-term side effects of chemo are feeling sick and throwing up. Most patients get medicines to prevent this. Another thing that can happen to people getting cancer treatment is lower blood counts. This can put people at risk for infection or bleeding.

Some people feel weak or dizzy after their treatments, or they have a fever. Others get mouth sores in or don't feel much like eating. It's also common for patients to lose some or all of their hair.

The short-term side effects of radiation can be similar to those of chemotherapy, except they usually affect just the area being treated. So if someone is getting radiation around the abdomen, he or she may feel sick or throw up. But people getting radiation in the area of the neck ares less likely to feel sick or throw — but more likely to get mouth sores.

Tell your doctor if you have any side effects of treatment.

Some people have long-term side effects from cancer treatments. For example, some cancer treatments can affect fertility. Your doctor will let you know if your treatment might have long-term side effects.

People who have had non-Hodgkin lymphoma need to keep seeing an oncologist for several years after treatment. Occasionally, cancer may return. Follow-up appointments with a cancer specialist can help doctors treat it early if it does.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma can be an aggressive disease. The good news is, treatments have improved in recent years. Researchers are constantly developing new and better ways to treat it. Today, most people who have non-Hodgkin lymphoma can be cured.

Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: September 2015
Originally reviewed by: Jonathan L. Powell, MD

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

© 1995-2015 KidsHealth® All rights reserved.
Images provided by iStock, Getty Images, Corbis, Veer, Science Photo Library, Science Source Images, Shutterstock, and

Bookmark and Share

Related Resources
Web SiteOncoLink OncoLink provides patients and professionals with cancer information, support, and resources.
OrganizationAmerican Cancer Society The American Cancer Society is the nationwide community-based voluntary health organization dedicated to preventing cancer, saving lives and diminishing suffering from cancer through research, education, advocacy, and service. Call:(800) ACS-2345
Web SiteAlex's Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer A unique foundation that evolved from a young cancer patient's front-yard lemonade stand to a nationwide fundraising movement to find a cure for pediatric cancer.
OrganizationLeukemia & Lymphoma Society The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is dedicated to funding blood-cancer research, education, and patient services. The Society's mission is to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease, and myeloma, and to improve the quality of life of patients and their families. Call: (914) 949-5213
Web SiteLymphoma Research Foundation is a one-to-one support program that connects patients and caregivers with volunteers that have experience with the same type of lymphoma, treatments, or challenges.
Related Articles
Hodgkin Lymphoma Hodgkin's disease is a type of lymphoma, which is a cancer of the lymphatic system. Although cancer can seem scary, most teens who get Hodgkin's disease get better.
Types of Cancer Teens Get While cancer is rare in teens, some types are more likely to affect young people. Learn about these types of cancer, including warning signs, symptoms, and treatments.
Blood Transfusions About 5 million people a year get blood transfusions in the United States. This article explains why people need them and who donates the blood used.
My Friend Has Cancer. How Can I Help? It's hard to know how to respond when someone you love — someone your own age — is diagnosed with cancer. Here are some thoughts on dealing with feelings and helping your friend.
Stem Cell Transplants Stem cells can develop into cells with different skills, so they're useful in treating diseases like cancer.
Cancer: Readjusting to Home and School If you've just finished a long hospital stay, you may have questions about reconnecting with friends and family. Get answers in this article for teens.
When Cancer Keeps You Home Cancer patients often have to stay at home to avoid infection. Read our ideas on ways to make the best of your time at home.
Cancer Center Visit our Cancer Center for teens to get information and advice on treating and coping with cancer.
Dealing With Cancer It's unusual for teens to have cancer, but it can happen. The good news is that most will survive and return to their everyday lives. Learn about how to cope if you or someone you know has cancer.
Developments Developments
Sign up for enewsletter
Get involved Get involved
Discover ways to support Akron Children's
Join the conversation Join the conversation
See what our patient families are saying