- Posted by jdavis on August 24, 2011
NHL is the most common cancer of the lymphatic system. Since the early 1970’s, incidence rates for non-Hodgkin lymphoma have nearly doubled.
NHL is not a single disease, but rather a group of several closely related cancers that affect the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. NHL is broadly divided into two major groups: B-cell lymphoma (which develops from abnormal B-lymphocytes, which is most common), and T-cell lymphomas (which develop from abnormal T-lymphocytes). Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that helps the body fight infections. B-cells develop into plasma cells that produce antibodies to fight infections, while T-cells attack foreign invaders (bacteria, viruses, etc.) directly.
How Do Non-Hodgkin Lymphomas Develop?
NHL can start in the lymph nodes, in a specialized lymphatic organ such as the spleen, or in lymph tissue found in organs such as the stomach or intestines. Since lymphocytes (white blood cells) can circulate to all parts of the body through the lymphatic vessels and bloodstream, abnormal lymphocytes can reach any part of the body. Thus, NHL can start in or spread to any part of the body. While some NHLs are localized to one area, most are present in other parts of the body by the time the diagnosis is confirmed.
What Are The Warning Signs?
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma can cause many symptoms, such as:
- Swollen, painless lymph nodes in the neck, armpits or groin
- Unexplained weight loss
- Soaking night sweats
- Coughing, trouble breathing or chest pain
- Weakness and tiredness that don’t go away
- Pain, swelling or a feeling of fullness in the abdomen
While most people who have these complaints will not have NHL, anyone with persistent symptoms should be seen by a doctor to make sure that lymphoma is not present.
What Are The Risk Factors?
The causes of non-Hodgkin lymphoma remain unknown, but immune system impairment and exposure to environmental carcinogens, pesticides, herbicides, viruses, and bacteria may play a role. There may be a higher risk for getting NHL in individuals:
- With a family history of NHL (though no hereditary pattern has been well established)
- Affected with autoimmune disease
- Who have received an organ transplant
- Exposed to chemicals such as pesticides, fertilizers, or solvents
- Infected with viruses such as Epstein-Barr, human T-lymphotropic virus type 1, HIV, hepatitis C, or certain bacteria, such as H-pylori
How Is NHL Treated?
While many effective treatment options exist, low grades of NHL usually recur, and some people go in and out of remission for years. In certain patients with indolent disease, treatment may not be necessary until there are signs of progression, and response to treatment can change over time. Treatment that worked initially may be ineffective the next time, making it necessary to always keep abreast of the latest information on new or experimental treatment options.
However, 30%-60% of patients with aggressive NHL can be cured. Although the indolent forms of NHL are not currently curable, the prognosis is still very good. Many people treated for NHL will receive some form of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, biologic therapy, or a combination of these. Bone marrow or stem cell transplantation may sometimes be used. Surgery may be used under special circumstances, but primarily to obtain a biopsy for diagnostic purposes.