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What non Hodgkin lymphoma is

Men and women discussing non Hodgkin's lymphoma

This page tells you about non Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

What lymphoma is

Lymphoma means a cancer of the lymphatic system. There are 2 main types of lymphoma, called Hodgkin lymphoma and non Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). If you are looking for information about Hodgkin lymphoma, you need to go to our Hodgkin lymphoma section. 

There are more than 60 different types of non Hodgkin lymphoma and we cover the main ones in this section.

Where non Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) can occur in the body

Because the lymphatic system runs all through the body, you can get non Hodgkin lymphoma just about anywhere. The most common place for it to be noticed first is in the lymph nodes in the neck. It is quite common to find it in the liver or spleen. But it can occur in other body organs as well.

The effect on the body of NHL

If you have lymphoma, some of your white blood cells (lymphocytes) start to divide abnormally. And they don't naturally die off as they usually do. These cells start to divide before they are fully mature. So they can't fight infection as normal white blood cells do. These abnormal lymphocytes start to collect in the lymph nodes or other places such as the bone marrow or spleen. They can then grow into tumours and begin to cause problems within the lymphatic system or the organ in which they are growing.

Non Hodgkin lymphoma in children

Non Hodgkin lymphoma in children is treated a little differently than in adults. Check with your doctor to see which sections of these pages apply to your child.
 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the About NHL section.

 

 

What lymphoma is

Lymphoma means a cancer of the lymphatic system. There are 2 main types of lymphoma

  • Hodgkin lymphoma
  • Non Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL)

Hodgkin lymphoma was named after the doctor who first recognised it. It used to be called Hodgkin's disease. Hodgkin lymphomas have a particular appearance under the microscope and they contain cells called Reed-Sternberg cells. Non Hodgkin lymphomas look different under the microscope and do not contain Reed-Sternberg cells.

It is important for doctors to be able to tell the difference between Hodgkin and non Hodgkin lymphomas. They are two different diseases. And although they are very similar in many ways, the treatment for them is not quite the same.

There are more than 60 different types of non Hodgkin lymphoma and they can behave in very different ways. Your doctor or specialist nurse will tell you about the type of NHL you have.

Remember that if you are looking for information about Hodgkin lymphoma, we have a whole section about it. This section is only about non Hodgkin lymphoma in adults.

 

Where NHL can occur in the body

Because the lymphatic system runs all through the body, you can get non Hodgkin lymphoma just about anywhere. The most common place for it to be noticed first is in the lymph nodes in the neck. It is quite common to find it in the liver or spleen. But it can occur in other body organs as well.

For example, NHL can occur in the stomach, small bowel, bones, brain, testicles or skin. Although very uncommon, lymphoma can also affect the eye. There is information about this in the eye cancer section

About 1 person in 3 with NHL has some lymphoma in an organ outside the lymphatic system. It is then called extranodal disease.

Diagram showing where lymphoma can spread to in the body

Remember that most types of cancer can spread to the lymph nodes. But this is not lymphoma. For example, the lymph nodes in the armpits are a common place for breast cancer to spread. If breast cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, this does not mean that the person now has lymphoma. The cancer cells that have spread to the lymph nodes are still breast cancer cells, and are treated as breast cancer.

 

The effect on the body of NHL

If you have lymphoma, some of your white blood cells (lymphocytes) divide abnormally. They don't have any resting time like normal cells and start to divide continuously, so too many are produced. And they don't naturally die off as they usually do.

The big problem is that these cells start to divide before they are fully mature. So they can't fight infection as normal white blood cells do. The abnormal lymphocytes start to collect in the lymph nodes or in other places such as the bone marrow or spleen. They can then grow into tumours and begin to cause problems within the lymphatic system or the organ in which they are growing. For example, if a lymphoma starts in the thyroid gland it can affect the normal production of thyroid hormones.

 

B cell and T cell NHL

There are many different types of non Hodgkin lymphoma. They can be classified in several different ways. One way is by the type of cell affected. Non Hodgkin lymphoma affects certain white blood cells called lymphocytes. Two types of lymphocyte can be affected – B cells and T cells. So, you can have a B cell lymphoma or a T cell lymphoma. 

Most people with NHL have B cell lymphomas. T cell lymphomas are more common in teenagers and young adults. Look at the page called types of non Hodgkin lymphoma for more information about the different types.

 

Non Hodgkin lymphoma in children

Non Hodgkin lymphoma in children is not treated quite the same as in adults. So while some of the information here will be useful, you need to be careful. Check the information with your doctor to find out which sections apply to you and your child.

 

Help and support with NHL

We have detailed information about non Hodgkin lymphoma treatments in this section.

If you would like more information about any aspect of non Hodgkin lymphoma, you can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They will be happy to answer any questions that you have.

Our non Hodgkin lymphoma organisations page gives details of other people who can provide information about NHL and its treatment. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. They often have free factsheets and information which they can send to you. There are also books, booklets, CDs and other resources available about non Hodgkin lymphoma. Some of these are free. Look at our NHL reading list for details.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use Cancer Chat, our online forum.

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Updated: 1 September 2014