What is Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma?

non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Image: Pexels

There are two types of lymphoma: non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Hodgkin lymphoma. The two types of lymphoma are treated differently. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is more common than Hodgkin lymphoma. For this article, we will be focusing on non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Also known as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, NHL, or just lymphoma, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a cancer that starts in white blood cells. The white blood cells called, lymphocytes, are a part of the body’s immune system.

There are several subtypes of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, including: chronic lymphocytic leukemia, cutaneous B-cell lymphoma, cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, follicular lymphoma, and Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia.

Here we will examine non-Hodgkin lymphoma and observe the symptoms associated with the disease. First, we will look at the lymphatic system as well as the two main types of lymphocytes.

Sites of Lymph Tissue

Cancer begins when cells grow out of control. Because lymph tissue is in many places within the body, lymphomas can begin anywhere. More specifically, non-Hodgkin lymphoma can occur in the lymph nodes, bone marrow, spleen, thymus and digestive tract. Although non-Hodgkin lymphoma can begin anywhere in the body where there is lymph tissue, it can spread to other parts of the lymphatic system.

The main parts of the body containing lymph tissue include the lymph nodes, spleen, bone marrow, thymus, adenoids and tonsils, and the digestive tract. As previously mentioned, these are the main sites where non-Hodgkin lymphoma occurs. Lymph nodes are bean-sized lymphocytes and are located throughout the body (including the chest, abdomen, and pelvis). The spleen is an organ under the ribs on the left side of the body. Bone marrow is where new blood cells are made. The thymus is found behind the upper part of the breastbone in front of the heart. Adenoids and tonsils are in the back of the throat. The stomach, intestines, and other organs that are part of the digestive tract have lymph tissue.

Any of the main sites mentioned above is where non-Hodgkin lymphoma starts. However, the growth rate of non-Hodgkin lymphoma differs. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma can spread and grow at different rates, depending on the patient’s condition.

Two Types of Lymphocytes

The lymphatic system has immune system cells (lymphocytes) that help the body by fighting infections. Lymphocytes are white blood cells, and there are two main types: B cells and T cells.

B Cells

B lymphocytes, or B cells, are the cells that protect the body against germs like bacteria or viruses. These cells fight against infection by creating proteins called antibodies. The antibodies attach to the germs and destroy them. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is more likely to arise from B cells.

T Cells

On the other hand, there are the T lymphocytes or T cells. There are several types of T cells. Some T cells destroy germs and abnormal cells, while others boost or slow the activity of other immune system cells. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, as mentioned earlier, is more likely to occur in B cells, and the disease is less likely to occur in T cells. However, non-Hodgkin lymphoma can develop from either type of lymphocyte.

Lymphoma arises from either type of lymphocyte, and begins depending on how mature the cells are when they become cancerous. In order to receive treatment, it is important to speak to your doctor and find what exact type of lymphoma you have.


There are several signs and symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. If you have persistent symptoms that worry you, make an appointment and speak to your doctor.

Symptoms include:

  • painless, swollen lymph nodes in your neck, armpits, or groin
  • chest pain
  • coughing or trouble breathing
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • abdominal pain or swelling
  • night sweats
  • weight loss


Doctors do not know the exact cause of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. However, there are cases in which non-Hodgkin lymphoma is due to a weakened immune system. As previously discussed, non-Hodgkin lymphoma arises from too many abnormal lymphocytes. Usually, old lymphocytes die and the body creates new ones. In non-Hodgkin lymphoma the lymphocytes do not die and instead continue to grow until they crowd in the lymph nodes, making them swell.

Doctors do not know the exact cause of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. However, there are known risk factors associated with the disease. Autoimmune disease, immunodeficiency, and organ transplants increase the likelihood of acquiring non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Other risk factors include exposure to certain viruses and bacteria, as well as certain conditions, such as Sjögren syndrome, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, and Klinefelter syndrome.

For more information, visit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society site. If you have more questions or concerns, contact your doctor and speak to a health professional you trust.