Lymphoma is a general term for a group of blood cancers originating in the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a network of organs, vessels, and cells throughout the body that are responsible for fighting germs, diseases, and infection. This system includes the lymph nodes, spleen, thymus, bone marrow, and thin tubes carrying white blood cells and lymph cells. Lymphatic tissues also reside in other organs such as the stomach and intestines.
More than half of all blood cancers are lymphomas. Lymphomas develop when a type of infection-fighting white blood cell—the lymphocyte—undergoes a malignant change, multiplies, and begins to crowd out healthy cells. This then creates tumors, which enlarge the lymph nodes and other parts of the lymphatic system. Lymphoma begins in one part of the body and can spread to other sites.
There are two main categories of lymphoma: Hodgkin lymphoma and Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Of the approximate 71,380 cases of lymphoma diagnosed in 2007, about 11 percent will be Hodgkin lymphoma. There are approximately 20 different distinct types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Causes of Lymphoma
While the exact cause of lymphoma is not often known, there are some factors known to increase the risk of developing lymphoma. The following are potential risk factors for lymphoma:
- Herbicides and pesticides. Specific ingredients found in herbicides and pesticides—such as organochlorine, organophosphate, and phenoxyacid compounds—have been associated with and increased risk of lymphoma.
- Exposure to certain chemicals, solvents, and water contaminated with nitrate.
- Elidel and Protopic. The FDA has added a black box warning to these eczema medications cautioning patients that these drugs can increase the risk of lymphoma.
- Immunosuppressant drugs.
- HIV. For patients infected with HIV, the incidence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma is 50 to 100 times greater than for the uninfected population.
- Epstein-Barr Virus. Patients with this viral infection and immune suppression resulting from organ transplantation and therapy may be at an increased risk for lymphoma.
- Human T-cell lymphocytotropic virus (HTLV). In certain areas of the world, this virus has been associated with an increased risk of lymphoma.
- Helicobacter Pylori. This bacterium, which causes stomach ulcers and other digestive illnesses, is associated with an increased risk of lymphoma.
- Inherited diseases. Approximately a dozen genetic diseases may increase the risk of lymphoma.
Symptoms of Lymphoma
Symptoms of lymphoma often depend on the area(s) of the body affected by this cancer. The following are common symptoms of lymphoma and the causes of these symptoms:
- Swollen lymph nodes. In many cases, the first symptom of lymphoma is enlargement of the lymph nodes in the neck. While this is often painless, some patients may experience pain in the few hours following alcohol consumption.
- Trouble breathing, cough, shortness of breath. This is the result of enlarged lymph nodes in the chest.
- Lost appetite, constipation, abdominal pain or swelling. This is caused by enlarged lymph nodes in the abdominal area.
- Swelling of the legs, feet, upper limbs, face, and/or neck. This is caused by the blockage of blood flow to the heart from the head resulting from swollen lymph nodes.
- Muscle weakness. This lymphoma symptom is caused by compression of the spinal nerves by a swollen lymph node.
- Bleeding, bone pain, weakness, shortness of breath, easy bruising, slow healing, and infection. This set of symptoms may indicate that lymphoma has invaded the bone marrow.
- Decreased ability to fight infection and other diseases.
- Thick, dark, itchy areas of the skin
- Weight loss, fever, night sweats and/or excessive sweating
When a patient presents with swollen lymph nodes lasting for several weeks (particularly with accompanying symptoms such as night sweats, fever, and weight loss) with no apparent infection, a doctor may suspect and test for lymphoma. While blood tests and radiological exams, such as CT scan and chest x-ray, can help provide evidence of lymphoma, biopsy of the enlarged lymph nodes is often required to make a definitive diagnosis of lymphoma. During this biopsy, expert pathologists will look for the presence of a special type of malignant cell (Reed-Sternberg cells) or other cells, which will help to determine the type of lymphoma. Immunophenotyping can sometimes help to distinguish between Hodgkin lymphoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and non-cancerous lymph node conditions.
After a diagnosis of lymphoma has been made, medical experts will then use blood tests and imaging procedures, such as CT, MRI, PET scans of the abdomen or other areas, to determine the extent and progression of the disease, including the location of lymph node involvement, the presence of large masses or tumors in affected sites, the rate of progression, and whether other organs have been invaded by cancerous cells. Staging lymphoma can help doctors determine the best course of treatment and the patient’s prognosis.
Lymphoma is classified into four different stages, based on the spread of the cancer. The following are the four stages of lymphoma:
- Lymphoma is limited to one lymph node
- Lymphoma involves two or more lymph nodes on the same side and section of the diaphragm (e.g. nodes in the armpit and neck)
- Lymphoma that involves lymph nodes above and below the diaphragm. (e.g. nodes in the neck and groin)
- Lymphoma that has spread to other systems of the body, such as the lungs, liver, and/or bone marrow
These four stages are further divided based on whether or not the following symptoms are present:
- Night sweats
- Unexplained loss of 10 percent or more total body weight in last six months
- Unexplained fever of over 100°F for three or more consecutive days
If a patient does have these symptoms, his or her lymphoma stage will be noted with a “B.” For example, if a patient has stage II lymphoma with symptoms, it will be staged as lymphoma stage IIB. If s/he does not present with these symptoms, it will be staged as lymphoma stage IIA.
Treatment and Prognosis of Lymphoma
Based on the staging of lymphoma and the rate of cancer progression, doctors will determine the best method of treatment. Treatment of lymphoma often involves chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or both. Stem cell transplantation may also be a recommended treatment for some patients. In some cases of lymphoma, a patient can be cured. In patients for whom a cure is not possible, lymphoma treatment can be beneficial in relieving symptoms, extending life, and improving quality of life.
Have you or a loved one developed lymphoma?
If you or a loved one has developed lymphoma after exposure to toxic elements or prescription medications, you may wish to consult with a qualified and experienced lymphoma lawyer. Certain drugs, such as Elidel and Protopic, have shown to increase the risk of lymphoma. Patients who have developed lymphoma after using these drugs may have the legal right to seek compensation for their losses and suffering. Additionally, lymphoma patients exposed to carcinogenic substances may also be able to seek compensation for their damages. Please contact our lymphoma attorneys today for a free consultation during which we can determine the best way to help you and your family..