Lymphoma is one of the blood cancers and targets the lymphatic system. It is less common than lung or breast cancer, but still every 3 minutes someone in the United States is diagnosed with blood cancer. It only accounts for 9.4% of over one-million cancer cases, but is still the cause of over 55,350 deaths each year.
No one wants to hear of a lymphoma diagnosis, but if you need more information this article will help you understand the causes, symptoms, and treatments. There are also helpful tips to help with management of symptoms.
Lymphoma is when the white blood cells (lymphocytes) start to change and act differently than normal cells. They have a faster rate of growth and fail to shed at the end of their life cycle. Lymphocytes are there to fight off infection, but in lymphoma they make you sick. The cancer tends to grow in parts of the lymphatic system such as; the spleen, the bone marrow, and the lymph nodes. It also affects the blood, and can spread to other organs in your body. There are two types of lymphoma; Hodgkin Lymphoma and non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.
This is the more common type of lymphoma and has no evidence of Reed-Sternberg cellular activity.
This is actually a rare type of lymphoma in the Reed-Sternberg cells. These are actually damaged and odd looking B lymphocyte cells.
Since lymphoma is a type of blood cancer, it can cause symptoms anywhere in the body and affect any system. The most common symptoms include:
Neck swelling, underarm swelling, or groin swelling
Shortness of breath
Abdominal fullness after eating
Lymph node enlargement
Unexplained weight loss
Low blood counts
It is important to understand these symptoms can be caused by anything and not just lymphoma. Any sudden onset could be an infection in the body. If symptoms like this do not go away, then it is important to see a doctor.
Certain risk factors can increase the chances for lymphoma, but doesn’t necessarily mean you will get lymphoma. Risk factors include:
Immunosuppressant Medications. These are medications that lower your immune response. If you have had an organ transplant or take medications for an autoimmune disorder you have a higher risk.
Viral Infections. Certain viral infections can trigger lymphoma. These include Epstein-Barr (Mono) and HIV. Some people also have H. Pylori in their stomach when diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Environmental Exposure. Household chemicals and chemicals on the job may increase the risk of lymphoma. This is especially high with pesticide use.
Genetics. There are cases where parent/child develop lymphoma, as well as siblings.
If you have lingering symptoms that appear to be an issue with the lymphatic system, you will need a thorough medical workup. The doctor will take a health history, family medical history, and any medications you are taking. If the doctor suspects lymphoma, the following tests may be done:
Blood Testing. Complete Blood Count to check for low blood cells.
Imaging. CT and PET scans to check for spread of cancer.
Biopsy. Lymph node will be removed and tested.
Bone Marrow Biopsy. The doctor will puncture a bone and take a sample of the bone and marrow to look for cancer cells.
Once a diagnosis is confirmed, the doctor will proceed to staging the cancer to determine the best treatment.
Stage I Very early lymphoma only found in one area of the body or one lymph node region.
Stage II Two affected lymph node regions. It may also be in one organ, plus the lymph node region for that organ. Cancer has not yet spread.
Stage III Found in most or all lymph nodes above and below the diaphragm. May also be found in the spleen at this time.
Stage IV Lymphoma is found in several organs, lymph node groups and spread to the bones, lungs, or liver.
If you do or don’t have symptoms of lymphoma the doctor sill give it a grade:
A No symptoms or only mild symptoms of lymphoma.
B Very obvious symptoms of lymphoma.
Depending on the stage, you and your doctor will come up with the best treatment plan for you. Treatments include:
Chemotherapy. Drugs will be given to kill off the cancer cells in your blood and body. They come in either pill form or intravenous treatments. If you are at an early stage, the doctor may choose to also use radiation therapy with chemotherapy.
There are side-effects including; loss of appetite, hair loss, nausea, problems with fertility, lung damage, and heart damage. Chemo can also make you higher risk for leukemia.
Radiation. Radiation is directed at the body to kill of the cancer cells. In Hodgkin lymphoma, only radiation may be used, but in most cases it follows chemotherapy. In early lymphoma, radiation may be the only treatment.
Side-effects of radiation include; hair loss, red skin, fatigue, thyroid issues, stroke, heart disease, and infertility. It can also put you at higher risk for breast cancer and lung cancer.
Stem Cell Transplants. Stem cell transplants are healthy stem cells that hopefully grow into healthy bone marrow. They will take your stem cells out and store them. You will go through chemotherapy and radiation to treat the cancer completely, then the stem cells are put back to hopefully grow into new and healthy bone marrow. This can also be given from a donor.
Research shows that alternative medicine may not cure lymphoma, but your doctor may be okay with certain complimentary treatments to help your body fight the cancer and improve your immune response. These include:
Probiotics. Helps replenish good bacteria and strengthen the immune system.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Reduces inflammation in the body. Not recommended for people on blood thinners.
Melatonin. May improve sleep during treatments.
Some cancer treatment centers have naturopathic physicians that may integrate herbal therapies or homeopathy into your treatment plan, while working with your oncologist. They can recommend the best natural therapies for your case.
Hydrotherapy. Water therapy may help stimulate the lymphatic system to eliminate toxins.
Acupuncture. May help with pain relief, improve immune response and detox the body.
Talk to your physician before starting any alternative medicine for cancer. There can be drug interactions or something may not fit with your treatment plan and cause unwanted side-effects.
Healthy lifestyle changes can help make managing cancer easier on your body and mind. Try these changes for an easier recovery and comfort:
See a Nutritionist. During chemo and radiation, you may feel nauseous. Lymphoma can also reduce your appetite. To prevent malnutrition or weight loss, see a dietician for a specialized meal plan to help you meet your nutritional needs.
Quit Smoking. If you smoke, quit as soon as possible after your diagnosis. If you don’t smoke, avoid secondhand smoke from others.
Reduce Alcohol Intake. Enjoy alcohol in moderation or on special occasions. Too much drinking will weaken your body and make it harder to recover.
Manage Stress. Research has shown that stress can make cancer worse or cause recurrence. Try to find ways to manage stress like; take up a hobby, meditate, or talk to someone you trust. Don’t be afraid to ask for help around the house and take time for yourself every day.
With early diagnosis and treatment, people with lymphoma usually do well. The complications can include:
Endocrine disorders – Thyroid, adrenal gland, pancreas
Increased risk of infection
Thickening of the air sacs in the lungs
Secondary cancer from radiation and chemo
Hodgkin lymphoma can turn into non-Hodgkin lymphoma
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