So, what is Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma? What does that really mean for me?

Finding out you have cancer is pretty scary but not knowing anything about the type of cancer you have is even more frightening. Here’s some information to help you understand.

How many other kids get NHL? (not the National Hockey League!)

First, like many other kinds of teen cancers, there is no known cause for your disease. Some statistics and facts may help to put your disease in perspective. Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL) accounts for about 8% of all teen cancers each year in the United States. Guys are three times more likely to get this disease than girls.

How Do You Know It’s Non-Hodgkin’s?

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma might start in any part of your lymph system: tonsils, thymus, bone, small intestine, spleen, or in lymph glands anywhere in your body. Your doctor will examine you carefully and check for swelling or lumps in your neck, underarms, groin, and abdomen. A chest x-ray will usually be done to check for swelling in your chest. If the lymph nodes don’t feel normal, or a lump is found in your chest or abdomen, your doctor may do a biopsy. Three different types of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma occur in teens. The type of NHL is determined by the way the cells from your biopsy looked under a microscope. This is called the “histology” of your cancer. (Just an interesting medical term, if you’re interested.)

The types of NHL are:

  • large cell lymphoma
  • small non-cleaved cell (Burkitt’s lymphoma or non-Burkitt’s lymphoma)
  • lymphoblastic lymphoma.

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma sometimes looks like leukemia (ALL) because both involve malignant lymphocytes (white blood cells found in your lymph nodes) but most kids with NHL do not have bone marrow problems.

Stages of Non-Hodgkin’s

The type of lymphoma and the extent of your disease at diagnosis determine your treatment. You have probably heard your doctor describe the extent of your disease in stages:

Stage I

Single tumor site in an isolated area, not including disease in the chest or abdomen.

Stage II

Single tumor that may involve local lymph nodes; two or more lymph nodes or tumor areas on the same side of the diaphragm (breathing muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen); or a primary tumor in the intestinal tract.

Stage III

Several tumors on opposite sides of the diaphragm; two or more lymph node areas above and/or below the diaphragm; chest tumors; large abdominal tumors; or all tumors near the brain or spine.

Stage IV

Any of the above with a tumor involving the central nervous system or bone marrow.

Now What?

NHL progresses or spreads very rapidly, so your treatment will be aggressive. If you have localized disease, it may be able to be surgically removed. You may also receive radiation to cure localized disease. If you had chest disease when you were diagnosed causing trouble breathing, you may have been given radiation at that time. Chemotherapy is given to treat extensive disease or prevent your disease from spreading to other areas of your body through your bloodstream. Bone marrow transplantation may be an option. Be sure to ask your medical team all the details of your treatment plan. You will be able to make better decisions about how to take care of yourself if you have all the information you need. Over the past twenty years, the treatment for your disease has improved a great deal and most teens like you will be cured of NHL.