Hodgkin Lymphoma

General Information | Treatment Options | Additional Resources

General Information
  • About
  • Risk Factors
  • Signs & Symptoms
  • Detection
  • Stages

Adult Hodgkin lymphoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the lymph system.

Adult Hodgkin lymphoma is a type of cancer that develops in the lymph system, part of the body's immune system.

The lymph system is made up of the following:

  • Lymph: Colorless, watery fluid that travels through the lymph system and carries white blood cells called lymphocytes. Lymphocytes protect the body against infections and the growth of tumors.
  • Lymph vessels: A network of thin tubes that collect lymph from different parts of the body and return it to the bloodstream.
  • Lymph nodes: Small, bean-shaped structures that filter lymph and store white blood cells that help fight infection and disease. Lymph nodes are located along the network of lymph vessels found throughout the body. Clusters of lymph nodes are found in the underarm, pelvis, neck, abdomen, and groin.
  • Spleen: An organ that makes lymphocytes, filters the blood, stores blood cells, and destroys old blood cells. It is located on the left side of the abdomen near the stomach.
  • Thymus: An organ in which lymphocytes grow and multiply. The thymus is in the chest behind the breastbone.
  • Tonsils: Two small masses of lymph tissue at the back of the throat. The tonsils produce lymphocytes.
  • Bone marrow: The soft, spongy tissue in the center of large bones. Bone marrow produces white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.

Because lymph tissue is found throughout the body, Hodgkin lymphoma can begin in almost any part of the body and spread to almost any tissue or organ in the body.

Lymphomas are divided into two general types: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. This summary is about the treatment of adult Hodgkin lymphoma. (See the PDQ summary on Adult Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Treatment for more information.)

Hodgkin lymphoma can occur in both adults and children; however, treatment for adults may be different than treatment for children. Hodgkin lymphoma may also occur in patients who have acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS); these patients require special treatment.

See the following PDQ summaries for more information:

Hodgkin lymphoma in pregnant women is the same as the disease in nonpregnant women of childbearing age. However, treatment is different for pregnant women. This summary includes information about treating Hodgkin lymphoma during pregnancy.

There are two main types of Hodgkin lymphoma: classical and nodular lymphocyte-predominant.

Most Hodgkin lymphomas are the classical type. The classical type is broken down into the following four subtypes:

  • Nodular sclerosing Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Mixed cellularity Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Lymphocyte depletion Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Lymphocyte-rich classical Hodgkin lymphoma.

Age, gender, and Epstein-Barr infection can affect the risk of developing adult Hodgkin lymphoma.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor. Risk factors for adult Hodgkin lymphoma include the following:

  • Being in young or late adulthood.
  • Being male.
  • Being infected with the Epstein-Barr virus.
  • Having a first-degree relative (parent, brother, or sister) with Hodgkin lymphoma.

Pregnancy is not a risk factor for Hodgkin lymphoma.

Possible signs of adult Hodgkin lymphoma include swollen lymph nodes, fever, night sweats, and weight loss.

These and other symptoms may be caused by adult Hodgkin lymphoma. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems do not go away:

  • Painless, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, underarm, or groin.
  • Fever for no known reason.
  • Drenching night sweats.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Itchy skin.
  • Feeling very tired.

Tests that examine the lymph nodes are used to detect (find) and diagnose adult Hodgkin lymphoma.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient's past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Complete blood count (CBC): A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the following:
    • The number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
    • The amount of hemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen) in the red blood cells.
    • The portion of the sample made up of red blood cells.
  • Sedimentation rate: A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the rate at which the red blood cells settle to the bottom of the test tube.
  • Blood chemistry studies: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs and tissues in the body. An unusual (higher or lower than normal) amount of a substance can be a sign of disease in the organ or tissue that makes it.
  • Lymph node biopsy: The removal of all or part of a lymph node. One of the following types of biopsies may be done:
    • Excisional biopsy: The removal of an entire lymph node.
    • Incisional biopsy: The removal of part of a lymph node.
    • Core biopsy: The removal of part of a lymph node using a wide needle.
    A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells, especially Reed-Sternberg cells. Reed-Sternberg cells are common in classical Hodgkin lymphoma.
Reed-Sternberg cell; photograph shows normal lymphocytes compared with a Reed-Sternberg cell. Reed-Sternberg cell. Reed-Sternberg cells are large, abnormal lymphocytes that may contain more than one nucleus. These cells are found in Hodgkin lymphoma.

  • Immunophenotyping: A test in which the cells in a sample of blood or bone marrow are looked at under a microscope to find out if malignant lymphocytes (cancer) began from the B lymphocytes or the T lymphocytes.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The patient's symptoms.
  • The stage of the cancer.
  • The type of Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Blood test results.
  • The patient's age, gender, and general health.
  • Whether the cancer is recurrent or progressive.

For Hodgkin lymphoma during pregnancy, treatment options also depend on:

  • The wishes of the patient.
  • The age of the fetus.

Adult Hodgkin lymphoma can usually be cured if found and treated early.

After adult Hodgkin lymphoma has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the lymph system or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the lymph system or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:

  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography. For adult Hodgkin lymphoma, CT scans of the chest, abdomen, and pelvis are taken.
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.
  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy: The removal of bone marrow, blood, and a small piece of bone by inserting a hollow needle into the hipbone or breastbone. A pathologist views the bone marrow, blood, and bone under a microscope to look for signs of cancer.
  • Laparotomy: A surgical procedure in which an incision (cut) is made in the wall of the abdomen to check the inside of the abdomen for signs of disease. The size of the incision depends on the reason the laparotomy is being done. Sometimes organs are removed or tissue samples are taken and checked under a microscope for signs of disease. This procedure is done only if it is needed to make decisions about treatment.
  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • Surgical biopsy: The removal of tissue using a scalpel. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells.
  • Thoracentesis: The removal of fluid from the space between the lining of the chest and the lung, using a needle. A pathologist views the fluid under a microscope to look for cancer cells.

For pregnant women with Hodgkin lymphoma, staging tests that protect the fetus from the harms of radiation are used. These include:

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Ultrasound exam: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:

  • Through tissue. Cancer invades the surrounding normal tissue.
  • Through the lymph system. Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels to other places in the body.
  • Through the blood. Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood to other places in the body.

When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

Stages of adult Hodgkin lymphoma may include A, B, E, and S.

Adult Hodgkin lymphoma may be described as follows:

  • A: The patient has no symptoms.
  • B: The patient has symptoms such as fever, weight loss, or night sweats.
  • E: "E" stands for extranodal and means the cancer is found in an area or organ other than the lymph nodes or has spread to tissues beyond, but near, the major lymphatic areas.
  • S: "S" stands for spleen and means the cancer is found in the spleen.

The following stages are used for adult Hodgkin lymphoma:

Stage I

Stage I is divided into stage I and stage IE.

  • Stage I: Cancer is found in one lymph node group.
  • Stage IE: Cancer is found in an area or organ other than the lymph nodes.

Stage II

Stage II is divided into stage II and stage IIE.

  • Stage II: Cancer is found in two or more lymph node groups on the same side of the diaphragm (the thin muscle below the lungs that helps breathing and separates the chest from the abdomen).
  • Stage IIE: Cancer is found in an area or organ other than the lymph nodes and in lymph nodes near that area or organ, and may have spread to other lymph node groups on the same side of the diaphragm.

Stage III

Stage III is divided into stage III, stage IIIE, Stage IIIS, and stage IIIS+E.

  • Stage III: Cancer is found in lymph node groups on both sides of the diaphragm (the thin muscle below the lungs that helps breathing and separates the chest from the abdomen).
  • Stage IIIE: Cancer is found in lymph node groups on both sides of the diaphragm and in an area or organ other than the lymph nodes.
  • Stage IIIS: Cancer is found in lymph node groups on both sides of the diaphragm and in the spleen.
  • Stage IIIS+E: Cancer is found in lymph node groups on both sides of the diaphragm, in an area or organ other than the lymph nodes, and in the spleen.

Stage III is also divided into stage III(1) and stage III(2) as follows:

  • Stage III(1): Cancer is found only in the upper abdomen above the renal vein.
  • Stage III(2): Cancer is found in lymph nodes in the pelvis and/or near the aorta.

Stage IV

In stage IV, the cancer either:

  • is found throughout one or more organs other than the lymph nodes and may be in lymph nodes near those organs; or
  • is found in one organ other than the lymph nodes and has spread to lymph nodes far away from that organ.

Adult Hodgkin lymphoma may be grouped for treatment as follows:

Early Favorable

Early favorable adult Hodgkin lymphoma is stage I or stage II, without risk factors.

Early Unfavorable

Early unfavorable adult Hodgkin lymphoma is stage I or stage II with one or more of the following risk factors:

  • A tumor in the chest that is larger than 1/3 of the width of the chest or at least 10 centimeters.
  • Cancer in an organ other than the lymph nodes.
  • A high sedimentation rate (in a sample of blood, the red blood cells settle to the bottom of the test tube more quickly than normal).
  • Three or more lymph nodes with cancer.
  • Symptoms such as fever, weight loss, or night sweats.

Advanced Favorable

Advanced favorable adult Hodgkin lymphoma is stage III or stage IV with three or fewer of the following risk factors:

  • Being male.
  • Being aged 45 years or older.
  • Having stage IV disease.
  • Having a low blood albumin (protein) level (below 4).
  • Having a low hemoglobin level (below 10.5).
  • Having a high white blood cell count (15,000 or higher).
  • Having a low lymphocyte count (below 600 or less than 8% of the white blood cell count).

Advanced Unfavorable

Advanced unfavorable Hodgkin lymphoma is stage III or stage IV with four or more of the following risk factors:

  • Being male.
  • Being aged 45 years or older.
  • Having stage IV disease.
  • Having a low blood albumin (protein) level (below 4).
  • Having a low hemoglobin level (below 10.5).
  • Having a high white blood cell count (15,000 or higher).
  • Having a low lymphocyte count (below 600 or less than 8% of the white blood cell count).

Recurrent Adult Hodgkin Lymphoma

Recurrent adult Hodgkin lymphoma is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the lymph system or in other parts of the body.

Cancer information from the NCI PDQ service