What is lymphoma?
The lymphatic system is part of the body's immune system. It is a network of lymph glands or nodes throughout the body linked by lymph vessels. The lymph fluid carries white blood cells (lymphocytes) which help to fight infection. Lymphomas are cancers of lymphocytes which behave abnormally and tend to collect in lymph nodes which then enlarge to form tumours. Lymphomas differ from other types of cancer and we asked an expert in lymphomas, Professor David Linch, to explain how.
There are two main types of lymphoma. Hodgkin lymphoma often affects young adults, most of whom can be cured, especially if diagnosed at an early stage. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma mainly affects adults; the risk increases with age. There are many types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, each with its own treatment and prognosis.
As for the non-Hodgkin's lymphomas, there is a wide variety of types, and there's probably over twenty different types, and they form a spectrum between very slow-growing tumours that are barely cancerous at all, all the way through to very rapidly-growing tumours that can cause problems very quickly. In general the slow growing ones when you look down the microscope, they are full of small cells not rapidly dividing, and they get called low grade lymphomas, whereas those that are growing very quickly, and when you look down the microscope they tend to be much bigger cells and many of them are dividing, they are called high grade lymphomas. But in the middle there is a fair amount of confusion and grey area, and it's also true that slow-growing, low grade lymphomas over time can pick up further mutations, start growing more quickly, and become high grade lymphomas, and that process is called transformation.
Yes, they do have different outcomes in so far as the vast majority of people with Hodgkin's disease can expect to be cured. Cure rates in excess of 85%, possibly in excess of 90% if you look at all comers, whereas the success rate with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is not so high and it does depend on what type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma you have. Paradoxically the most rapidly-growing, aggressive tumours are the easier ones to cure, whereas the slow-growing, indolent tumours, they are much more protected from the effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and although they are easier to treat and keep under control, they are actually much more difficult to totally eliminate.
The aim of the treatment does depend on the exact type of lymphoma that is present, and also the age and general health of the patient. For the vast majority of patients with Hodgkin's disease, the aim of treatment is cure. And that also applies to most people who have rapidly-growing, high grade non-Hodgkin's lymphomas. Perhaps in a very elderly, infirm person, one would take a more conservative approach where you are just trying to keep the disease under control rather than striving for cure, but for most people, one will strive for cure. The reality for most people with low grade lymphomas is that this is a chronic, relapsing condition, and most people are not going to get cured, even though they may live for many, many years with this disease, fit and well. And so in those patients you are trying to extend life, and not just life, but good quality life, and so that has impact on decisions about what treatment one has at what time.
Many different treatments for lymphoma exist. These include radiotherapy, chemotherapy, antibody therapy, targeted therapy and stem cell transplants. Some people newly diagnosed with low grade non-Hodgkin lymphoma do not need treatment immediately but are closely monitored until their disease progresses to a stage where treatment is needed (see 'Watch and wait').
If treatment is successful people may be told they are in remission. The length of remission depends on individual circumstances but the longer people are in remission the less likely it is that their disease will relapse. Relapsed lymphomas can often be treated and people we spoke to were given chemotherapy, radiotherapy, stem cell transplants, or surgery (see 'When lymphoma comes back').
Considerable research over recent years has led to lymphomas becoming better understood than in the past and to the current levels of successful treatment of Hodgkin and high grade non-Hodgkin lymphomas. Research into new treatments continues with the aim of improving the outcomes for all people with lymphoma.
There are also developments going on, not with drugs, but in manipulation of the immune system, and lymphomas do appear to be one of those types of cancer that may be amenable to therapy by immune mechanisms, and this of course is an extremely exciting area of therapy because there's the hope of achieving cure without all the side effects that go with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. At the moment this treatment is still in its infancy but I think there's lots of reasons to be optimistic that this will have an impact in the future.
Last reviewed February 2016
Last updated February 2016