What is non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) is a type of cancer that starts growing in the body’s lymph system. The lymph system is part of the immune system that helps fight off disease. NHL is a general term for several types of lymphoma. The other major type of lymphoma is Hodgkin lymphoma.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma can start growing anywhere in the body where there is lymph tissue, such as the lymph nodes, bone marrow, spleen and other organs. Some types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma spread very quickly, while others spread more slowly. If not treated, all types can spread to other parts of the lymph system, and then to other parts of the body.

Although non-Hodgkin lymphoma most often occurs in adults, children can also get it.

What are the symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

Symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma can vary depending on where in the body they occur. Symptoms may include:

  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Feeling very tired
  • Cough, chest pain or shortness of breath
  • Weight loss
  • Frequent infections
  • Easy bruising or bleeding

How is non-Hodgkin lymphoma treated?

Treatment options for non-Hodgkin lymphoma will depend on the specific type of lymphoma, where it is located and if it has spread. Your treatment options may include:  

  • Chemotherapy is a common treatment for NHL. It is a type of treatment that kills cancer cells. It might be used alone or with other treatments. It may also be used to prepare the body for a bone marrow transplant.
  • Radiation therapy uses high-powered x-rays to kill cancer cells. It may be used alone if the lymphoma is caught early. Or it may be used together with chemotherapy.
  • Targeted drug therapy attacks the cancer cells directly. These types of drugs often cause less damage to other cells in the body than other treatments. One type of targeted therapy is monoclonal antibody therapy. Monoclonal antibodies are man-made versions of antibodies that target specific cancer cells. There are several used to treat NHL.
  • Immunotherapy uses your immune system to help fight the cancer. One type is CAR T-cell therapy. This treatment alters your T cells, a type of immune system cell, so they attack certain proteins on the cancer cells.
  • A bone marrow transplant, or stem cell transplant, uses high doses of chemotherapy to damage the bone marrow. Then healthy stem cells, from your own bone marrow or from a donor, are infused back into your blood.
  • Surgery to remove the cancer is rarely used to treat NHL. It may be an option if the NHL is located in an organ and has not spread.
  • Clinical trials test new types of cancer treatments. Talk with your doctor to learn if you are eligible to enroll in any clinical trials for NHL.

What are the risk factors for non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

Some of the risk factors for non-Hodgkin lymphoma include:

  • Being over age 60
  • Having a close relative (parent, sibling, child) with NHL
  • Taking medicines that suppress the immune system, such as after having an organ transplant
  • Having an autoimmune disease such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease or Sjogren disease
  • Having certain infections, such as HIV or the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)
  • Exposure to certain chemicals, such as pesticides

CAR T-cell Therapy

CAR T-cell therapy is a treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that is hard to treat (refractory) or has come back after treatment (relapsed). This cell-based gene therapy uses a patient’s own T-cells (a type of white blood cell) to find and destroy cancer cells in their body.
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