PDF download is not available for Arabic and Urdu languages at this time. Please use the browser print function instead

Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system. Learn about the lymphatic system, different types of lymphoma, diagnosis and treatment.

Key points

  • Lymphoma is a disease of the lymph nodes.
  • Lymphoma can be divided into two main types: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Lymphoma is diagnosed through a physical exam, a biopsy of the lymph node and scans.
  • The main types of treatment for lymphoma are chemotherapy and radiation.

Your immune system

To better understand lymphoma, you need to first know a bit more about your lymph nodes and the lymphatic system, its role in the immune system, and how lymphocytes work.

Your immune system protects your body from diseases and infections. It is made up of special cells, organs and a circulatory (say: sir-koo-LATE-or-ee) system that is separate from your blood vessels. This system is called the lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system

The lymphatic system is one of the most important parts of your immune system. It is made of many thin tubes called lymphatic vessels that send liquid called lymph around your body. Lymph contains a type of cell called a lymphocyte.

All around your body are thousands of small glands called lymph nodes or lymph glands. Lymph nodes look like little beans. Lymph runs through the lymph nodes. The lymph nodes filter the lymph and clean out any bacteria, viruses or other things that are bad for your body. This is how your lymph nodes help to keep your body healthy. Lymph also flows through some other organs including your spleen, tonsils, bone marrow and a gland in your chest called the thymus.

What are lymphocytes​?

Lymphocytes (say: lim-fo-sites) are white blood cells that help the body fight infection and disease. They are made in the bone marrow, which is inside the big bones in your body. They circulate in the blood and in the lymphatic system. There are a lot of lymphocytes in your lymph nodes. Lymphocytes are like the soldiers in your immune system’s army. They recognize and destroy cells that are not good for you.

There are two types of lymphocytes:

  • B-lymphocytes (B-cells)
  • T-lymphocytes (T-cells)

Your lymphatic system has three important jobs in your body:

  • fighting infections
  • filtering the fluid in your body to remove bad cells
  • collecting fluid that leaks out of your blood vessels and returning it to your blood

What is lymphoma?

Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system. Lymphoma occurs when there is a mutation, or change, in the DNA of a lymphocyte. This mutation can happen in either a B-lymphocyte or a T-lymphocyte, but it is more common in B-lymphocytes. The mutation causes the lymphocyte to divide out of control and not die when it is supposed to. The mutation also keeps the cell from doing its job of fighting infection in the body.

Eventually, as the mutated lymphocytes continue to divide and reproduce, they form a mass of cancerous cells within the lymph node. This mass is called a lymphoma.

There are two types of lymphoma:

You will learn more about these types of lymphoma in the next sections.

Your immune system can still function even if you have lymphoma.


How is lymphoma diagnosed?

Doctors discover what type of lymphoma you have and the stage through a process called diagnosis.

Usually, diagnosis of lymphoma starts with a doctor examining you and asking you a lot of questions about how you are feeling and why you came to the clinic or the hospital. They will feel your lymph nodes to see if any are bigger than normal. The doctor will do a biopsy to get a sample of a lymph node. The doctor will look at this sample under a microscope to check for cancerous cells. The doctor will also order some scans to get a picture of the inside of your body.

How is lymphoma treated?

Doctors use information gathered during diagnosis to diagnose what type of lymphoma you have, its stage (whether it has spread) and to plan your treatment. The main types of treatment for lymphoma are chemotherapy and radiation. The goal of treatment is to kill all the cancerous lymphocytes in your body. You will learn more about different types of treatment in the sections on cancer medications and cancer treatments and support therapies.

Prognosis for lymphoma

Your doctor will probably tell you and your family the prognosis for your lymphoma. A prognosis means the likelihood or chance that treatment will work and that you will recover from cancer. Each type of lymphoma has a different prognosis depending on:

  • the type of lymphoma
  • the stage of the lymphoma

Your best source of information about your lymphoma is your health-care team. If you have any questions or if there is anything you do not understand about your lymphoma, ask your doctors and nurses. If you are nervous about asking the doctors or nurses yourself, you can talk to your parent/caregiver. They may be able to answer your questions or can help you ask questions.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019