Some types of cancers are high-profile – everyone knows what they are, or have at least heard of them. For example, I think skin cancer, lung cancer, and breast cancer are high-profile cancers. Other types of cancer are less well-known, including the type of cancer I had: non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL). Luckily, as a doctor, I knew that my enlarged lymph nodes were a sign of my NHL. I was able to get treatment and eventually overcome it. For others, it’s critical to educate themselves on different types of cancer, including the signs, symptoms, and risk factors, because early detection saves lives.

What is Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma?

NHL is a type of cancer specific to the lymphatic system – the body’s network of vessels and tissues that move a fluid called lymph throughout the body. The lymphatic system transports nutrients, filters waste, and produces immune cells that fight against infections. These immune cells include lymphocytes (AKA white blood cells). NHL occurs when the body produces too many abnormal lymphocytes, which crowd out normal, healthy lymphocytes and interfere with the lymphatic system’s ability to fight infection.

Risk Factors for Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

NHL is the 7thmost common cancer, and over 70,000 people will be diagnosed with NHL each year in the United States. Unfortunately, we still know very little about causes, risk factors, or ways to prevent NHL. Although there are no definitive causes, the following factors are associated with higher prevalence of NHL: 

  • Older age
  • Immunosuppressant medications
  • Viral/bacterial infections (e.g., HIV)
  • Pesticide or other chemical exposure

Signs and Symptoms of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

Those with NHL may have the following signs and symptoms:

  • Swollen lymph nodes 
    • Look for soft pea- or grape-sized bumps on the neck, armpit, or groin areas
    • Check for differences in lymph node areas between opposite sides of the body
  • Abdominal pain
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss

If you’re concerned about any of the symptoms above, schedule a visit with your doctor. In order to diagnose or rule out NHL, your doctor may conduct a physical exam, blood or urine tests, imaging tests (e.g., CT, MRI), a lymph node biopsy, or a bone marrow biopsy. 

Treatment for Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

Treatment depends on many factors including the type (B-cell or T-cell), stage (I-IV), and growth (indolent vs. aggressive) of the NHL, as well as the patient’s age and symptoms. Sometimes, like in my case, a doctor may suggest a “watch and wait” approach. This allows the doctor to see how the cancer may regress on its own, potentially allowing for a less aggressive treatment regimen (e.g., immunotherapy medications). However, some types of NHL require more aggressive treatment such as chemotherapy and radiation. 

Outlook for Individuals with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

Over 70% of people diagnosed with NHL live at least 5 years beyond their diagnosis. This rate depends on the stage and type of NHL. For example, for those with stage 4 NHL, like I had, the 5-year survival rate is 62%. This is why it’s so important to know about different types of cancer and what signs and symptoms to look for. Early diagnosis and treatment significantly increase your likelihood of overcoming NHL and living to tell the story.