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Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL)

  • Is a type of cancer that generally develops in the lymph nodes and lymphatic tissue found in organs such as the stomach, intestines or skin. In some cases, NHL involves bone marrow and blood.
  • Isn't just one disease–it's actually a diverse group of blood cancers that all arise from lymphocytes (white blood cells that are part of the immune system).
  • Lymphoma cells may develop in just one place or in many sites in the body.
  • NHL has many different subtypes which are either indolent (slow-growing) or aggressive (fast-growing).

Click here to access NHL statistics.

What You Should Know

  • Hematologists and oncologists are specialists who treat people who have NHL or other types of blood cancer.
  • It's important to know your NHL subtype

What You Should Do

  • Seek treatment in a cancer center where doctors are experienced treating patients with lymphoma.
  • Talk with your doctor about your diagnostic tests and what the results mean.
  • Be sure you know your NHL subtype - different subtypes have different treatments.
  • Talk with your doctor about all your treatment options and the results you can expect from treatment. 
  • Obtain and keep records of your test results and the treatment you receive as this information is useful for long-term follow-up care. 

To download lists of suggested questions to ask your healthcare providers, click here.

How Does NHL Develop?

A cell undergoes a change (mutation) in a lymph node or in some other lymphatic structure. It can start in one of three major types of lymphocytes:

  • B lymphocytes (B cells), which produce antibodies to help combat infections
  • T lymphocytes (T cells), which have several functions, including helping B lymphocytes make antibodies
  • Natural killer (NK) cells, which attack virus-infected cells or tumor cells

About 85-90 percent of NHL cases start in the B cells. 

The abnormal lymphocyte grows out of control and produces more abnormal cells like it.

  • These abnormal lymphocytes (lymphoma cells) accumulate and form masses (tumors). If NHL isn't treated, the cancerous cells crowd out normal white cells, and the immune system can't guard against infection effectively.
  • NHL that develops in or spreads to other areas of the body where lymphoid tissue is found, such as the spleen, digestive tract and bone marrow, is called primary extranodal lymphoma.
  • NHL is classified into more than 60 different subtypes. Doctors classify the NHL subtypes into categories that describe how rapidly or slowly the disease is progressing:
    • Aggressive (fast-growing) NHL
    • Indolent (slow-growing) NHL

Risk Factors

The exact cause of NHL is not known, but there are risk factors that may increase the likelihood of developing the disease. Factors affecting people’s risk of developing NHL have been studied extensively. Some of these factors are immune disorders, medicines, infections, lifestyle, genetics, race, family history and occupational factors. Some risk factors differ by subtype. See Causes and Risk Factors in Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma for more.   

Source: Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. Reviewed by Neha Mehta-Shah, MD, MSCI