Several different cancers are clubbed under the category of non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. They are cancers of the lymphocytes (white blood cells), which include the lymph nodes, spleen, and other organs of the immune system. However, Hodgkin's Lymphoma is excluded from this list.
The function of the immune system is to defend the body by fighting against infections and other diseases. Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is a cancer that begins in the cells of the immune system. The lymphatic system, which is a part of the immune system, includes lymph vessels, lymph, lymph nodes, tonsils, thymus, and spleen. Lymphatic tissues exist throughout the body including the stomach, skin, and small intestine.
It is classified according to the pace at which the cancer spreads. The cancer is graded as low, intermediate, or high. Burkitt’s tumor comes under the high-grade cancer.
- Although the causes of this cancer are unknown, they are likely to develop in people with compromised immune systems.
- The risk increases after an organ transplant or in person with HIV infection.
- This cancer affects adults to a larger extent. About half of all cases are in the people aged 60 and above. Also, more males are affected than females.
- The condition usually starts in a lymph node. It begins when a lymphocyte (usually a B cell) becomes abnormal.
- The abnormal cell divides and makes copies of itself.
- These new cells further divide, thus producing more and more abnormal cells.
- The abnormal cells don’t die when they should, nor do they protect the body from infections or other diseases. The buildup of extra cells often forms a mass of tissues which is known as a growth or tumor.
The symptoms are defined by the type of cancer, and the part of the body it affects. Some of the common symptoms experienced include:
- Severe itchiness
- Excessive sweating, especially while sleeping at night
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, underarms, groin, or other areas
- Unintentional weight loss
If the cancer affects the thymus gland or lymph nodes in the chest, symptoms include coughing or shortness of breath brought on by pressure, which the tumor places on the windpipe (trachea) or other airways. A person may experience a headache, have trouble concentrating, or undergo personality changes, and also seizures if the cancer affects cells in the brain. If it occurs in the digestive tract, it can cause nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain. Anemia is a result of this cancer occurring in the bone marrow, as lymphoma cells replace red blood cells.
The first step in detection is usually a physical examination of the patient, involving a thorough checkup of body areas with lymph nodes to determine if they are swollen. The laboratory tests include:
- Blood chemistry tests
- Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy
- CBC with white blood cell differential
- CT scans of the chest, abdomen, and pelvis
- Lymph node biopsy (A biopsy involves removal of a small sample of the tissue thought to be cancerous under local anesthesia.)
- PET (positron emission tomography) scan
The treatment of any cancer depends on the stage it is at when first diagnosed, and how rapidly it spreads. Low-grade lymphomas usually grow slowly and cause a few symptoms, but eventually become resistant to treatment, which is why doctors often postpone treatment until the cancer shows signs of spreading.
When non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is treated with chemotherapy, it usually involves many different types of drugs being administered at the same time. Some drugs such as chlorambucil (marketed as Leukeran) are administered orally; others such as cyclophosphamide (marketed as Cytoxan) are injected into a vein or muscle. Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles of a treatment period and followed by a rest period.
Another drug called rituximab (Rituxan) is often used. Rituxan is a form of immunotherapy. It targets a molecule on the surface of B-cells.
Radiation therapy is also frequently used to damage cancer cells and stop their growth. Patients with a poor prognosis may be treated with high-dose chemotherapy with or without radiation, followed by a bone marrow transplant.
Low-grade cancers progress slowly, and sometimes, take over 10 years to get to a stage where they are detected. However, they cannot be cured with chemotherapy alone. While chemotherapy can often shrink low-grade lymphomas, the cancer usually recurs within five years. Usually, intermediate-grade and high-grade lymphomas respond well to chemotherapy. However, the cancers that do not respond to chemotherapy drugs, are generally fatal within a year or two of diagnosis.
Cases of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma have become fairly common and have been increasing in the United States since the 1950s. Hope for better solutions lie in research being zealously conducted to find out the cause of this rapid increase as well as appropriate cures.
Disclaimer: This HealthHearty article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.