Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

General Information | Treatment Options | Resources

 

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

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

The lymph system is part of the immune system and 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 grow 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. The spleen is 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 make lymphocytes.
  • Bone marrow: The soft, spongy tissue in the center of large bones. Bone marrow makes white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.

Because lymph tissue is found throughout the body, childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma can begin in almost any part of the body. Cancer can spread to the liver and many other organs and tissues.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma can occur in both adults and children. Treatment for children is different than treatment for adults. (See the PDQ summary on Adult Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Treatment for more information.)

There are four major types of childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The specific type of lymphoma is determined by how the cells look under a microscope. The 4 major types of childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma are:

  • B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma (Burkitt and Burkitt-like lymphoma) and Burkitt leukemia.
  • Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.
  • Lymphoblastic lymphoma.
  • Anaplastic large cell lymphoma.

There are other types of lymphoma that occur in children. These include the following:

  • Lymphoproliferative disease associated with a weakened immune system.
  • Rare non-Hodgkin lymphomas that are more common in adults than in children.

Possible signs of childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma include breathing problems and swollen lymph nodes.

These and other symptoms may be caused by childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Wheezing.
  • High-pitched breathing sounds.
  • Swelling of the head or neck.
  • Trouble swallowing.
  • Painless swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck, underarm, stomach, or groin.
  • Fever for no known reason.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Night sweats.

Tests that examine the body and lymph system are used to detect (find) and diagnose childhood non-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 health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. One of the following types of biopsies may be done:
    • Excisional biopsy: The removal of an entire lymph node or lump of tissue.
    • Incisional biopsy: The removal of part of a lump, lymph node, or sample of tissue.
    • Core biopsy: The removal of tissue or part of a lymph node using a wide needle.
    • Fine-needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy: The removal of tissue or part of a lymph node using a thin needle.
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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

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

  • The stage of the cancer.
  • The number of places outside of the lymph nodes to which the cancer has spread.
  • The type of lymphoma.
  • The patient’s general health.

After childhood non-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. Some of the tests that are used to diagnose childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma are also used to stage the disease. The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:

  • 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 health habits and 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.
  • Complete blood count (CBC); left panel shows blood being drawn from a vein on the inside of the elbow using a tube attached to a syringe; right panel shows a laboratory test tube with blood cells separated into layers: plasma, white blood cells, platelets, and red blood cells. Complete blood count (CBC). Blood is collected by inserting a needle into a vein and allowing the blood to flow into a tube. The blood sample is sent to the laboratory and the red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets are counted. The CBC is used to test for, diagnose, and monitor many different conditions.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. The picture can be printed to be looked at later.
  • Gallium scan: A procedure to detect areas of the body where cells, such as cancer cells, are dividing rapidly. A very small amount of radioactive material, gallium, is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. The gallium collects in the bones or other tissues (organs) and is detected by a scanner.
  • 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.
  • Lumbar puncture: A procedure used to collect cerebrospinal fluid from the spinal column. This is done by placing a needle into the spinal column. This procedure is also called an LP or spinal tap.
  • Bone scan: A procedure to check if there are rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells, in the bone. A very small amount of radioactive material is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. The radioactive material collects in the bones and is detected by a scanner.
  • 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).
  • Endoscopy: A procedure to look at organs and tissues inside the body to check for abnormal areas. An endoscope is inserted through an incision (cut) in the skin or opening in the body, such as the mouth. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue or lymph node samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of disease.

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.

The following stages are used for childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma:

Stage I

In stage I childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer is found in a single area or lymph node outside of the abdomen or chest.

Stage II

In stage II childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer is found:

  • in only one area and in the lymph nodes around it; or
  • in 2 or more areas or lymph nodes on one side of the diaphragm (the thin muscle under the lungs that divides the chest and abdominal cavity and helps with breathing); or
  • to have started in the stomach or intestines and has been completely removed by surgery, and lymph nodes in the area may or may not have cancer.

Stage III

In stage III childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer is found:

  • in areas or lymph nodes on both sides of the diaphragm; or
  • to have started in the chest; or
  • in more than one place in the abdomen; or
  • in the area around the spine.

Stage IV

In stage IV childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer is found in the bone marrow, brain, or spinal cord. Cancer may also be found in other parts of the body.

Childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma is also described as localized or disseminated.

Treatment for childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma is based on whether the cancer is localized or disseminated. Localized lymphoma has not spread beyond the area in which it began. Disseminated lymphoma has spread beyond the area in which it began. Stage I and stage II are usually considered localized. Stage III and stage IV are usually considered disseminated.

Recurrent Childhood Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

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

Cancer information from the NCI PDQ service