Lymphoma is a cancer that affects the lymphatic system which is the disease-fighting system of the body. The lymphatic system is made up of the lymph nodes, spleen, bone marrow and thymus gland. Lymphoma doesn’t just affect these areas of the lymphatic, but it can also cause a problem in other organs of the body. There are two main types of lymphoma and many sub-types.
Lymphoma Signs and Symptoms
Lymphoma can cause a range of symptoms depending on the specific type and its stage. The most common symptom is the swelling of the lymph nodes. It is typically painless but in some cases can cause pain especially after drinking alcoholic beverages. Aside from swelling in the neck area (lymph nodes), swelling of the armpit and groin can also occur.
Other symptoms of lymphoma:
- Heavy sweating especially at night
- Fevers which usually comes and goes
- Unexplained weight loss*
- Itching which usually worsens after consuming alcohol
- Coughing or difficulty breathing
- Abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting after alcohol consumption
- Appetite loss
- Tiredness or fatigue
1. Hodgkin’s lymphoma: It is formerly known as Hodgkin’s disease which is a cancer of the lymphatic system. In this type of lymphoma, the cells in the lymphatic system have an abnormal growth pattern, and it can spread outside of the lymphatic system. As the disease progresses, the ability of the body to defend itself from infection is compromised.
2. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma: This is cancer which originates from the lymphatic system then spreads throughout the body. In this type of lymphoma, the tumors grow from lymphocytes which are a type of white blood cell. It is more common compared to Hodgkin lymphoma, and there are many subtypes of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Lymphoma Causes and Risk Factors
For most cancers including lymphoma, experts are still unsure about the main cause. However, certain people have a higher risk of developing it. Here are identified risk factors for the two main types of lymphoma:
- Age: Most people develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma when they are older than 60
- Ethnicity and location: The disease is more common in developed countries although in the United States, it is less common in African Americans and Asian Americans.
- Exposure to chemicals/radiation: Particular chemicals that are used in agriculture is tied to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Nuclear radiation exposure can also cause the disease.
- Weakened immune system: It is known to increase* risk (like from HIV or after organ transplantation).
- Infection: Risk of developing this type of lymphoma increases* with certain bacterial and viral infections.
- Autoimmune disease: When the immunes system attacks the cells of the body, there is a higher risk of developing the disease.
- Age: The disease primarily affects people in their 20s and those older than 55.
- Sex: It is a little bit more common in males.
- Infection: A person infected with Epstein-Barr virus has a higher risk of developing Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
- Location: It is most common in the United States, Canada and the northern part of Europe. It is the least common in Asian regions.
- Family: If a person has a sibling with the disease, there is a higher risk.
- HIV Infection: This also increases* risk.
Lymphoma Tests and Diagnosis
Doctors can only investigate lymphoma if a patient is experiencing the signs and symptoms. They start by taking a thorough history of the patient. This is to rule out other conditions that may be causing the symptoms. Then, a physical examination follows checking the areas where swelling of the lymph nodes may occur. A biopsy may follow to confirm the diagnosis if the doctor suspects that it is lymphoma. This will also confirm the specific type of lymphoma which will guide the doctor in making a prognosis and treatment plan. Blood tests, CT scans, MRI, ultrasound, PET, bone marrow biopsy and spinal tap may also be ordered by the doctor for diagnosis and to guide treatment.
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Lymphoma Treatments and Medications
The treatment plan depends on the specific type of lymphoma and how it has progressed. It is up to the doctor to choose among the different treatments which are chemotherapy, immunological therapy with monoclonal antibodies, radiotherapy, stem cell transplantation and surgery. There is a long list of drugs available for both main types of lymphoma. However, chemotherapy is usually combined with other treatment options like immunotherapy and radiotherapy. In treating non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, other biological drugs may be used for treatment especially after other treatments didn’t succeed. This includes interferon, thalidomide and lenalidomide. Some cases although a very small number can be treated with stem cell transplantation.
Precautions and Self Care
There is no way to prevent lymphomas because of the fact that the cause is still unknown. However, people who have a high risk are advised to undergo routine screening in order to detect the cancer at its early stage making it more likely for the treatment to succeed. Like with other cancers, it is important to understand your condition including your treatment options and prognosis. You need to establish a support system composed of your family and friends who will help you cope.
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