Lymphoma is a form of cancer that attacks lymphatic tissue and especially affects lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. It is the seventh most common form of cancer across the world and accounts for about 3% to 4% of all cases in the United States. Though it can occur at any age, lymphoma is the most common cancer affecting teens and young adults.
While four different forms of lymphoma are identified by the World Health Organization, two are most commonly recognized: Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's. Hodgkin's lymphoma is distinguished by the Reed-Sternberg cell, a distinctive type of cell that increases in number as Hodgkin's lymphoma progresses. It is more treatable than non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which refers to all other types of lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma generally affects elderly individuals.
Experts classify the severity and progression of lymphoma in four stages that represent the location and nature of the cancerous tumor.
Certain infections, toxic chemicals, and a compromised immune system can increase the risk of developing lymphoma. Those who have had the Helicobacter pylori infection, or any other condition caused by the Epstein-Barr virus, are believed to be at greater risk. The immune deficiency caused by diseases, including HIV, AIDS, and autoimmune diseases, or surgical procedures, such as organ transplants, also heightens an individual's vulnerability. Additionally, exposure to some chemicals used in agriculture and nuclear radiation have been linked to cancer.
Unlike certain other forms of cancer, lymphoma frequently presents with nonspecific symptoms, including swelling of the lymph nodes, which can be attributed to a variety of other diseases, resulting in a misdiagnosis. Other signs of ill health associated with lymphoma include fever, night sweats, loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, itching, and respiratory issues. Given the general nature of these symptoms, an individual may need to undergo thorough examinations and tests to get a correct lymphoma diagnosis.
In most cases when a doctor checks a patient for lymphoma, they request a lymph node biopsy. When lymph nodes do not show visible swelling, medical imaging tests can help to determine where the mass is, accompanied by a biopsy. With a biopsy, the doctor removes the suspicious lymph node and examines it under a microscope for cancerous cells. After the biopsy, a number of tests are performed to help determine which kind of cancer has developed, including a bone marrow biopsy.
Though the potential for recovery differs in each case and with the type of lymphoma, timely treatment often has positive results for lymphoma. Hodgkin lymphoma is among the most curable cancers, with approximately 86% of individuals living five years or more. Various methods are available for people diagnosed with lymphoma, including chemotherapy, radiation, cellular or antibody therapy, stem cell transplantation, splenectomy, radiation immunotherapy (RIT), and steroids.
People with indolent lymphoma experience few or no symptoms because the cancer grows and spreads slowly. In such cases, doctors undertake watchful waiting, closely observing and periodically using a variety of tests and checkups. Treatment with drugs and therapy begins only if cancer starts growing or producing symptoms. Watchful waiting does not affect survival chances for most people with indolent lymphoma as long as the medical staff monitors the progression of the disease.
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