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.
Causes of Lymphoma
Although they know that abnormal changes in cells are responsible for causing all cancers, scientists are still unsure of all the exact causes of lymphoma cancers that might exist. However, researchers have found that there are some links and risk factors that can make a person more likely to develop lymphoma.
People who are HIV positive are at a much higher risk of developing lymphoma, according to the CDC. This may be because HIV, and later on, AIDS, result in long-term suppression of immune systems in people who live with these viruses. It’s also more common for people with HIV to have opportunistic infections that may damage white blood cells. Other viruses, such as Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis, have also been linked to a higher risk of developing lymphoma.
Exposure to certain substances and radiation may also play a role in whether or not someone develops lymphoma. One ingredient, trichloroethylene (TCE), that’s found in pesticides is linked to a type of this cancer called non-Hodgkin lymphoma. While there is enough evidence to suggest that TCE and some other pesticide ingredients may cause lymphoma, scientists aren’t yet sure how much exposure must occur in order to raise a person’s risk of developing the cancer. Exposure to ionizing radiation, which can cause cell death and mutations, may also elevate the risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Finally, as with other cancers, having someone in your family who has developed lymphoma also raises your risk of getting it. Although most people don’t develop cancer because someone in their family had it, Hodgkin lymphoma, another type, appears to have a genetic link.
Symptoms of Lymphoma
Because lymphoma causes unhealthy lymphocytes to build up in lymph nodes, swelling in your lymph nodes is one of the primary symptoms of this type of cancer. Common node sites that swell are in your armpits, groin and neck. You may also feel pain and swelling throughout your abdomen or feel a sensation of fullness.
Like some other cancers, lymphoma can cause you to lose weight even when you’re not trying. You might also feel extremely fatigued, and no amount of sleep may make you feel rested. A fever, night sweats and coughing or trouble breathing are also common lymphoma symptoms. Because many of these symptoms are similar to those you can experience with a variety of illnesses, it’s important to let your doctor know if you have any of them and how long they’ve persisted. For example, fatigue and a cough due to the flu can last for two weeks or so, but if you’ve had these symptoms for a month with no sign of them improving, tell your doctor.