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Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) represents a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system, a complex network of organs, tissues and vessels, being part of the body’s immune system. Apart from distributing fluid and particulate matter throughout the bloodstream, the lymphatic system also fights infections and other diseases using white blood cells called lymphocytes. Although the cancer can start in any part of the body considering that it first targets lymph tissue, the main sites include bone marrow, spleen, lymph nodes, adenoids and tonsils, thymus and digestive track. Specialists make a clear distinction between non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Even though both of them share the same origin, namely in the lymphocytes, the main difference lies in the subset of lymphocytes affected, which have particular appearances. Identifying and analyzing them under the microscope is very important because it allows the ascertainment of an accurate diagnosis and a proper treatment. Furthermore, doctors categorize non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma on different types and grades, according to the severity and speed of cancer cell growth.
The most common types of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma are follicular lymphoma and large B-cell lymphoma.
Regardless of their type and speed of growth, non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas spread throughout the body in the lack of a proper treatment.
Specialists do not know the exact reason for the mutation of lymphocytes but they link multiple risk factors with the appearance of this condition by understanding that specific changes in DNA can lead to abnormal and uncontrollable multiplication of cells. These risk factors for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma involve having immune deficiencies, chronic infections, where the body creates new lymphocytes with the purpose to fight infections, or autoimmune diseases, where the immune system keeps attacking the body.
People with HIV have a weakened immune system making them susceptible to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Those with coeliac disease, which provokes small bowel inflammation as well as those who received radiotherapy or chemotherapy for treating another type of cancer in the past, face a higher risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Previous exposure to certain viruses can also cause the appearance of this condition.
Fortunately, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma does not run in the family and is not infectious. Apparently, this type of cancer affects more men than women, with the exception of primary mediastinal B-cell lymphoma, which represents a subtype of diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBLC). It originates in the mediastinum, more specifically behind the breastbone thus pressing on the trachea and causing breathing difficulties.
People with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma usually experience swollen lymph nodes in the armpit, groin or neck. Normally, these lymph nodes or lymph glands scattered throughout the body contain white blood cells that have the mission to protect it from infections. However, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma development leads to the accumulation of lymphocytes in the lymph nodes, which explains the swelling. Because the glands tend to swell when the body experiences infections, it does not necessarily mean that the respective person suffers from this type of cancer.
Apart from the painless swelling in the lymph nodes, other symptoms of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma include high temperature, itchy skin, persistent cough, weight loss and night sweats. The location of the enlarged lymph node causes specific symptoms.
If a person has the symptoms mentioned above without any sign of infection, seeking medical advice becomes imperative. Even if the doctor does not establish a diagnosis for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, it can still discover other alarming conditions that could lead to complications and threaten the patient’s life.
When interacting with a person that presents non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma signs and symptoms, the doctor will first make inquiries concerning her medical history followed by a detailed physical examination, during which he will pay close attention to the affected areas of the body. Furthermore, he will investigate the swollen lymph nodes to determine if they represent the consequence of an infection or if he should consider the presence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The doctor can order blood tests, which can reveal unquestionable signs of infection or a biopsy if he suspects that the enlarged lymph nodes are the result of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In the first case, the patient must take antibiotics for several weeks and wait for the nodes to shrink. However, in the second case, the doctor will remove a small part or the entire node with the goal to view it under the microscope and perform other tests in the laboratory.
Biopsy represents the only solution that helps doctors clear their doubts when it comes to establishing a diagnosis for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and depending on each patient’s situation, they have the possibility to choose between several types of biopsy.
Imaging tests provide clear and detailed pictures of the patient’s body using magnetic fields, radioactive particles, sound waves or X-rays. Doctors resort to them for various reasons including to discover the causes of unexplainable symptoms, to assess the stage of the condition, to determine the efficiency of the treatment and look for signs of lymphoma recurrence after the treatment.
Doctors provide medical treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after assessing the cancer’s type and stage as well as the patient’s age and overall health. In certain cases, doctors successfully accomplish cancer removal during a biopsy, which allows them to exclude further treatment. However, if the lymphoma is growing fast, medication and radiotherapy represent the main options available. Doctors and healthcare professionals specialized in treating lymphoma, such as hematologists, cancer and transplant specialists, psychologists and counselors communicate and work together concerning the most adequate, painless and effective treatment plan.