Lymphoma is a type of cancer that spreads through your lymphatic system. There are two different types of this disease, one of which is one of the most common cancers in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. That’s just one reason why it’s important to understand what lymphoma is and what its causes and symptoms are. Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be unnerving, but whether you or someone you know has been diagnosed with lymphoma or is concerned about this type of cancer, learning more about it can be empowering and help you understand what to expect.
What Is Lymphoma?
The word “lymphoma” is a general term that refers to certain types of cancers that start in your lymphatic system. This is a network of tissues and organs that work to remove waste products from your body and defend against infection, and it includes your spleen and tonsils. You may have heard of lymph nodes before; these are part of your lymphatic system. They’re connected by lymphatic vessels, which are similar to blood vessels. But instead of carrying blood, these vessels move a fluid called lymph throughout your body.
Lymph carries special white blood cells called lymphocytes, which form in your bone marrow and function as part of your immune system, working to eliminate bacteria, viruses and other toxins that cause illness. Lymphocytes also produce antibodies that help you fight disease. As lymph travels around your body, it collects waste products from your other bodily systems. When the lymph reaches your lymph nodes, the white blood cells attack and remove any bacteria or other antigens the lymph is carrying. After the nodes filter the lymph, the fluid moves into your bloodstream.
Lymphocytes and most other cells in your body reproduce copies of themselves before dying off. They do this at a normal, predictable rate — unless you have cancer. Cancer is a disease that happens when cells in your body start reproducing in ways they’re not supposed to. This can happen when the cells mutate, meaning the DNA within them randomly changes and causes the cell to start functioning abnormally. These mutated cells may not die off as quickly, and when they reproduce, they make more of the abnormal copies of themselves. The location or system in your body where this process begins determines the type of cancer it is. When it forms in lymphocytes, the cancer is called lymphoma.