Lymphomas are cancers that affect the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is part of the body’s immune system and it includes tissues such as the bone marrow, tonsils and spleen, as well as lymphatic vessels and lymph nodes. Lymphatic vessels are tiny vessels that collect waste products from the body’s tissues in fluid called lymph. Lymph contains white blood cells including cells called lymphocytes. Lymphocytes help protect the body against infections. Lymph nodes store white blood cells and help to filter out waste products.

Lymphoma arises when developing lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) undergo a malignant change and multiply in an uncontrolled way. Increasing numbers of abnormal lymphocytes, called lymphoma cells, accumulate and form collections of cancer cells in lymph nodes (glands) and other parts of the body. Over time, lymphoma cells replace normal lymphocytes, weakening the immune system’s ability to fight infection.

There are two main types of lymphoma: Hodgkin lymphoma (HL) and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). 

Hodgkin lymphoma is distinguished from other types of lymphoma by the presence of specific malignant lymphoid cells called Reed Sternberg cells. About 10% of all lymphomas are HL. 

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is the name for any type of lymphoma that does not contain Reed Sternberg cells.

The type and subtype of lymphoma impacts on how the cancer presents, grows, spreads and is treated. This information is typically determined by performing a biopsy - a procedure that either removes or takes a sample from the affected tissue. The sample is then examined under a microscope, looking for certain features that allow the classification of the lymphoma.

Other investigations commonly performed to stage (determine the extent) of the lymphoma include blood tests, CT scans, PET scans and a bone marrow biopsy. Treatment for lymphoma depends on the stage of the disease, the severity of symptoms and the person’s general health. Treatment options can include radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or targeted therapies to destroy cancer cells. Research is ongoing to find new ways to diagnose and treat different types of cancer. Some people may be offered the option of participation in a clinical trial to test new ways of treating lymphoma.

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