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Hodgkin's Lymphoma Library

Learn about Hodgkin's Lymphoma

Adult Hodgkin lymphoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the lymph system.

Adult Hodgkin lymphoma is a type of cancer that develops in the lymph system. The lymph system is part of the immune system. It helps protect the body from infection and disease.

The lymph system is made up of the following:

  • Lymph: Colorless, watery fluid that travels through the lymph vessels and carries T and B lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell.
  • Lymph vessels: A network of thin tubes that collect lymph from different parts of the body and return it to the bloodstream.
  • Lymph nodes: Small, bean-shaped structures that filter lymph and store white blood cells that help fight infection and disease. Lymph nodes are found along a network of lymph vessels throughout the body. Groups of lymph nodes are found in the mediastinum (the area between the lungs), neck, underarm, abdomen, pelvis, and groin. Hodgkin lymphoma most commonly forms in the lymph nodes above the diaphragm and often in the lymph nodes in the mediastinum.
  • Spleen: An organ that makes lymphocytes, stores red blood cells and lymphocytes, filters the blood, and destroys old blood cells. The spleen is on the left side of the abdomen near the stomach.
  • Thymus: An organ in which T lymphocytes mature and multiply. The thymus is in the chest behind the breastbone.
  • Bone marrow: The soft, spongy tissue in the center of certain bones, such as the hip bone and breastbone. White blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets are made in the bone marrow.
  • Tonsils: Two small masses of lymph tissue at the back of the throat. There is one tonsil on each side of the throat. Adult Hodgkin lymphoma rarely forms in the tonsils.

Lymph tissue is also found in other parts of the body, such as the lining of the digestive tract, bronchus, and skin.

There are two general types of lymphoma: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. This summary is about the treatment of adult Hodgkin lymphoma, including during pregnancy.

For information about Hodgkin lymphoma in children, adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma, or lymphoma in people who have acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), see the following PDQ summaries:

The two main types of Hodgkin lymphoma are: classic and nodular lymphocyte-predominant.

Most Hodgkin lymphomas are the classic type. When a sample of lymph node tissue is looked at under a microscope, Hodgkin lymphoma cancer cells, called Reed-Sternberg cells, may be seen. The classic type is broken down into the following four subtypes:

  • Nodular sclerosing Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Mixed cellularity Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Lymphocyte depletion Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Lymphocyte-rich classic Hodgkin lymphoma.

Nodular lymphocyte-predominant Hodgkin lymphoma is rare and tends to grow more slowly than classic Hodgkin lymphoma. Nodular lymphocyte-predominant Hodgkin lymphoma often occurs as a swollen lymph node in the neck, chest, armpits, or groin. Most people do not have any other signs or symptoms of cancer at diagnosis. Treatment is often different from classic Hodgkin lymphoma.

Age, being male, past Epstein-Barr infection, and a family history of Hodgkin lymphoma can increase the risk of adult Hodgkin lymphoma.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Risk factors for adult Hodgkin lymphoma include the following:

  • Age. Hodgkin lymphoma is most common in early adulthood (age 20–39 years) and in late adulthood (age 65 years and older).
  • Being male. The risk of adult Hodgkin lymphoma is slightly higher in males than in females.
  • Past Epstein-Barr virus infection. Having an infection with the Epstein-Barr virus in the teenage years or early childhood increases the risk of Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • A family history of Hodgkin lymphoma. Having a parent, brother, or sister with Hodgkin lymphoma increases the risk of developing Hodgkin lymphoma.

Signs of adult Hodgkin lymphoma include swollen lymph nodes, fever, drenching night sweats, and weight loss.

These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by adult Hodgkin lymphoma or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms that do not go away:

  • Painless, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, underarm, or groin.
  • Fever for no known reason.
  • Drenching night sweats.
  • Weight loss for no known reason in the past 6 months.
  • Itchy skin, especially after bathing or drinking alcohol.
  • Feeling very tired.

Fever for no known reason, weight loss for no known reason, and drenching night sweats are called B symptoms. B symptoms are an important part of staging Hodgkin lymphoma and understanding the patient's chance of recovery.

Tests that examine the lymph system and other parts of the body are used to help diagnose and stage adult Hodgkin lymphoma.

The results of the tests and procedures below also help make decisions about treatment.

These tests may include:

  • Physical exam and health history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient's health, including fever, night sweats, and weight loss, past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Complete blood count (CBC): A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the following:
    • The number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
    • The amount of hemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen) in the red blood cells.
    • The portion of the sample made up of red blood cells.
  • Blood chemistry studies: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs and tissues in the body. An unusual (higher or lower than normal) amount of a substance can be a sign of disease.
  • LDH test: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amount of lactic dehydrogenase (LDH). An increased amount of LDH in the blood may be a sign of tissue damage, lymphoma, or other diseases.
  • Hepatitis B and hepatitis C test: A procedure in which a sample of blood is checked to measure the amounts of hepatitis B virus-specific antigens and/or antibodies and the amounts of hepatitis C virus-specific antibodies. These antigens or antibodies are called markers. Different markers or combinations of markers are used to determine whether a patient has a hepatitis B or C infection, has had a prior infection or vaccination, or is susceptible to infection. Knowing whether a patient has hepatitis B or C may help plan treatment.
  • HIV test: A test to measure the level of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) antibodies in a sample of blood. Antibodies are made by the body when it is invaded by a foreign substance. A high level of HIV antibodies may mean the body has been infected with HIV. Knowing whether a patient has HIV may help plan treatment.
  • Sedimentation rate: A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the rate at which the red blood cells settle to the bottom of the test tube. The sedimentation rate is a measure of how much inflammation is in the body. A higher than normal sedimentation rate may be a sign of lymphoma or another condition. Also called erythrocyte sedimentation rate, sed rate, or ESR.
  • PET-CT scan: A procedure that combines the pictures from a positron emission tomography (PET) scan and a computed tomography (CT) scan. The PET and CT scans are done at the same time on the same machine. The pictures from both scans are combined to make a more detailed picture than either test would make by itself. A PET-CT scan may be used to help diagnose disease, such as cancer, determine stage, plan treatment, or find out how well treatment is working.
    • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, such as the neck, chest, abdomen, pelvis, and lymph nodes, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography. If a PET-CT scan is not available, a CT scan alone may be done.
    • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A PET scan is a procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.
  • Lymph node biopsy: The removal of all or part of a lymph node. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells called Reed-Sternberg cells. Reed-Sternberg cells are common in classic Hodgkin lymphoma.

    One of the following types of biopsies may be done:

    • Excisional biopsy: The removal of an entire lymph node.
    • Incisional biopsy: The removal of part of a lymph node.
    • Core biopsy: The removal of tissue from a lymph node using a wide needle.

    Other areas of the body, such as the liver, lung, bone, bone marrow, and brain, may also have a sample of tissue removed and checked by a pathologist for signs of cancer.

    The following test may be done on tissue that was removed:

    • Immunophenotyping: A laboratory test that uses antibodies to identify cancer cells based on the types of antigens or markers on the surface of the cells. This test is used to help diagnose specific types of lymphoma.

For pregnant women with Hodgkin lymphoma, imaging tests that protect the unborn baby from the harms of radiation are used. These include:

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI). In women who are pregnant, contrast dye is not used during the procedure.
  • Ultrasound exam: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The patient's signs and symptoms, including whether or not they have B symptoms (fever for no known reason, weight loss for no known reason, or drenching night sweats).
  • The stage of the cancer (the size of the cancer tumors and whether the cancer has spread to the abdomen or more than one group of lymph nodes).
  • The type of Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Blood test results.
  • The patient's age, sex, and general health.
  • Whether the cancer is newly diagnosed, continues to grow during treatment, or has come back after treatment.

For Hodgkin lymphoma during pregnancy, treatment options also depend on:

  • The wishes of the patient.
  • The age of the unborn baby.

Adult Hodgkin lymphoma can usually be cured if found and treated early.

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