Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

Discusses non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cancer of the cells of the lymph system. Covers what causes it and symptoms. Covers treatment, including chemotherapy. Offers home treatment tips to help manage side effects like diarrhea and fatigue.

Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

Topic Overview

Is this topic for you?

Lymphomas are either Hodgkin lymphomas or non-Hodgkin lymphomas. Hodgkin lymphomas have a type of cell called Reed-Sternberg cells. Lymphomas without these cells are non-Hodgkin lymphomas. This topic is about non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). To learn about Hodgkin lymphoma, see the topic Hodgkin Lymphoma.

What is non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

Lymphoma is cancer that begins in the lymph system in white blood cells called lymphocytes. When these cells become abnormal, they don’t protect the body from infection or disease. They also grow without control and may form lumps of tissue called tumors.

NHL can start almost anywhere in the body. It may start in a single lymph node, a group of lymph nodes, or an organ such as the spleen. Or it can spread to almost any part of the body, including the liver and bone marrow.

There are many types of NHL. Sometimes they are grouped as:

  • Slow-growing lymphomas, which spread slowly and cause few symptoms. These may also be called indolent or low-grade lymphomas.
  • Fast-growing lymphomas, which spread quickly and cause severe symptoms. These may also be called aggressive lymphomas and may be classified as intermediate-grade or high-grade.

Treatment can cure some people and may allow others to live for years. How long you live depends on the type of NHL you have and the stage of your disease (how far it has progressed).

What causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

The cause of NHL is not known. The abnormal cell changes may be triggered by an infection or exposure to something in the environment. Or it may be linked to gene changes (mutations). NHL is not contagious.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of NHL include:

  • A painless swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck, underarm, or groin. This is the most common symptom.
  • Fever not caused by another health problem.
  • Night sweats.
  • Extreme fatigue.
  • Weight loss you can’t explain.
  • Pain in the belly or back.

How is non-Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosed?

Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask you questions about your health. The exam includes checking the size of your lymph nodes in your neck, underarm, and groin.

Your doctor will take a piece of body tissue (biopsy) to diagnose NHL. The tissue usually is taken from a lymph node. You may have other tests to find out what kind of NHL you have.

How is it treated?

Your treatment depends on the type of lymphoma you have, the stage of the disease, your age, and your general health. You may not need treatment until you have symptoms. NHL is usually treated with chemotherapy. Sometimes radiation or radiation with chemotherapy may be used. Or you may have targeted therapy with monoclonal antibodies.

If treatment doesn’t work, or if NHL comes back after initial treatment, you may have chemotherapy along with a stem cell transplant.


Experts don’t know what causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

When a person has non-Hodgkin lymphoma, abnormal rapid cell growth occurs. This abnormal growth may need a “trigger” to start, such as an infection or exposure to something in your environment. There is also a link between NHL and problems with the immune system.

NHL is not contagious and is not caused by injury.


Symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) include:

  • A painless swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck, underarm, or groin. This is the most common symptom.
  • Unexplained fever.
  • Night sweats.
  • Feeling very tired.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Itchy skin.
  • Reddened patches on the skin.
  • A cough or shortness of breath.
  • Pain in the belly or back.

What Happens

In non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), white blood cells called lymphocytes divide and grow without order or control. The abnormal lymphocytes usually are either B-cell or T-cell lymphocytes. But most cases of NHL involve B-cell lymphocytes.

Lymph tissue is present in many areas of the body, so NHL can start almost anywhere in the body. It may occur in a single lymph node, a group of lymph nodes, or an organ. And it can spread to almost any part of the body, including the liver, bone marrow, and spleen.

NHL may be classified as:

  • Slow-growing lymphomas, which spread slowly and cause few symptoms. These may also be called indolent or low-grade lymphomas.
  • Fast-growing lymphomas, which spread quickly and cause severe symptoms. These may also be called aggressive lymphomas and may be classified as intermediate-grade or high-grade.

Over time, lymphoma cells may replace the normal cells in the bone marrow. Bone marrow failure results in the inability to produce red blood cells that carry oxygen, white blood cells that fight infection, and platelets that stop bleeding.

Long-term survival depends on the type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and the stage of the disease when it is diagnosed. About 80 out of 100 people diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma are alive 1 year after the disease is diagnosed. That number drops to about 67 out of 100 at 5 years, and 57 out of 100 at 10 years.footnote 1

What Increases Your Risk

Some things can increase your chances of getting non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). These things are called risk factors. But many people who get non-Hodgkin lymphoma don’t have any of these risk factors. And some people who have risk factors don’t get the disease.

Risk factors include:footnote 2

  • Being male. NHL is more common in men than in women.
  • Age. The likelihood of getting NHL increases as you get older.
  • Impaired immune system. NHL is most common among those who have an impaired immune system, an autoimmune disease, or HIV or AIDS. It also occurs among those who take immunosuppressant medicines, such as medicines following an organ transplant.
  • Viral infection. A viral infection, such as Epstein-Barr virus, increases the risk of developing NHL.
  • Bacterial infection. Infection with Helicobacter pylori increases the risk of lymphoma involving the stomach.
  • Environmental exposure. Exposure to agricultural pesticides or fertilizers, solvents, and other chemicals may increase the risk of developing NHL.

When should you call your doctor?

Call your doctor to schedule an appointment if you have had any symptoms for longer than 2 weeks, such as:

  • Painless swelling in the lymph nodes in the neck, underarm, or groin.
  • Unexplained fever.
  • Drenching night sweats.
  • Extreme fatigue.
  • Unexplained weight loss in the past 6 months.
  • Itchy skin.
  • Cough or shortness of breath.
  • Pain in the belly or back.

Who to see

Health professionals who can evaluate your symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) include:

When NHL is suspected, a tissue sample (biopsy) is needed to make a diagnosis. A biopsy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma is usually taken from a lymph node. But other tissues may be sampled as well. A surgeon will remove a sample of tissue so that a pathologist can examine it under a microscope to check for cancer cells.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is usually treated by a medical oncologist or a hematologist. If you need radiation therapy, you will also see a radiation oncologist.

Exams and Tests

If non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) is suspected, your doctor will ask about your medical history and perform a physical exam. This exam includes checking for enlarged lymph nodes in your neck, underarm, and groin.

Diagnostic tests

A tissue sample (biopsy) is needed to make a diagnosis. A biopsy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma is usually taken from a lymph node, but other tissues may be sampled as well.

A bone marrow aspiration and biopsy is usually done to find out if lymphoma cells are present in the bone marrow.

Other tests

Your doctor may also order other tests, including:

  • Blood tests, such as a chemistry screen to measure the levels of several substances in the blood and a CBC (complete blood count) to provide information about the kinds and numbers of cells in the blood.
  • A chest X-ray, to provide a picture of the inside of the chest.
  • A CT scan or MRI, to provide detailed pictures of the inside of the chest, abdomen, and pelvis.
  • A PET scan, to show areas of increased metabolic activity. Metabolic activity is often high in cancer cells.
  • Lab tests, such as flow cytometry, that check the types of cells in a biopsy sample. These tests help your doctor find out the type of lymphoma.
  • Lumbar puncture (also called a spinal tap), to find out whether lymphoma cells are in the fluid (cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF) surrounding your brain and spinal cord.

Treatment Overview

Treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) depends on:

  • The stage of the disease.
  • The type of lymphoma. The kind of treatment you have will depend on whether you have B-cell or T-cell lymphoma and whether it is fast-growing or slow-growing.
  • The size of the tumor, where the lymphoma is located, and what organs are involved.
  • Your general health.

Your doctor will work with you and your medical team (which may include an oncologist, a hematologist, and an oncology nurse) to come up with your treatment plan.

Treatment options

  • Watchful waiting (surveillance) is a period of time after the diagnosis of some types of NHL when you are not receiving treatment but are still being watched closely by your doctor.
  • Radiation therapy is often the treatment of choice for localized slow-growing (indolent or low-grade) NHL. For more information, see Other Treatment.
  • Chemotherapy kills cancer cells or stops them from dividing. The way chemotherapy is taken depends on the type and stage of cancer.
  • Targeted therapy with monoclonal antibodies destroys cancer cells without harming normal cells.
  • A stem cell transplant may be used to treat NHL that has come back. Or it may be used right after you have very high-dose chemotherapy.

Side effects

A common concern of cancer patients are the side effects of treatments like chemotherapy and radiation. Your medical team will let you know ahead of time what side effects you can expect and help you manage them. And there are things you can do at home. To learn more, see Home Treatment.

Recurrent NHL

Sometimes NHL comes back after treatment. This is called recurrence or relapse. Treatments for recurrent NHL include chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of the two. This treatment may be followed by a stem cell transplant.

Follow-up care

You will need regular exams after you have been treated for NHL.

Let your doctor know if you have any problems as soon as they appear.


Finding out that you have cancer can change your life. You may feel like your world has turned upside down and you have lost all control. Talking with family, friends, or a counselor can really help. Ask your doctor about support groups. Or call the American Cancer Society (1-800-227-2345) or visit its website at

What to think about

Your doctor may use the term “remission” instead of “cure” when talking about the effectiveness of your treatment. Although many people with non-Hodgkin lymphoma are successfully treated, the term remission is used because cancer can return. It is important to discuss with your doctor the possibility of recurrence.

Even after effective treatment for NHL, you may be at slightly higher risk for other types of cancer, especially melanoma, lung, brain, kidney, and bladder cancers. Be watchful for any symptoms of cancer.

Additional information about NHL is provided by the National Cancer Institute at

Palliative care

Palliative care is a kind of care for people who have a serious illness. It’s different from care to cure your illness. Its goal is to improve your quality of life—not just in your body but also in your mind and spirit. You can have this care along with treatment to cure your illness.

Palliative care providers will work to help control pain or side effects. They may help you decide what treatment you want or don’t want. And they can help your loved ones understand how to support you.

If you’re interested in palliative care, talk to your doctor.

For more information, see the topic Palliative Care.

End-of-life care

For some people who have advanced cancer, a time comes when treatment to cure the cancer no longer seems like a good choice. This can be because the side effects, time, and costs of treatment are greater than the promise of cure or relief. But you can still get treatment to make you as comfortable as possible during the time you have left. You and your doctor can decide when you may be ready for hospice care.

For more information, see the topics:


There is no known way to prevent non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

Home Treatment

You can do things at home to help manage your side effects. If your doctor has given you instructions or medicines to treat these symptoms, be sure to follow them. In general, healthy habits such as eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep and exercise may help control your symptoms.

  • Home treatment for nausea or vomiting includes watching for and treating early signs of dehydration, such as a dry mouth or feeling lightheaded when you stand up. Eating smaller meals may help. A little bit of ginger candy or ginger tea can help too.
  • Home treatment for diarrhea includes resting your stomach and being alert for signs of dehydration. Check with your doctor before you use any nonprescription medicines for your diarrhea.
  • Home treatment for constipation includes gentle exercise along with adequate intake of fluids and a diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, and fiber. Check with your doctor before you use a laxative for your constipation.

Other problems that can be treated at home include:

  • Sleep problems. If you have trouble sleeping, tips such as going to bed at a regular time and getting exercise daily can help.
  • Feeling very tired. If you lack energy or become weak easily, try to manage your energy and get extra rest.
  • Sore mouth. Home treatment measures can ease mouth pain and speed healing.
  • Hair loss. Tips include using a mild shampoo and a soft hairbrush.
  • Pain. Home treatment can help you manage pain.

Handling the stress of having cancer

Having cancer can be very stressful, and it may feel overwhelming to face the challenges in front of you. Finding new ways of coping with the symptoms of stress may improve your overall quality of life.

These ideas may help:

  • Get the support you need. Spend time with people who care about you, and let them help you.
  • Take good care of yourself. Get plenty of rest, and eat nourishing foods.
  • Talk about your feelings. Find a support group where you can share your experience.
  • Try new ways to relax. And do things each day that help you stay calm and relaxed. Stress reduction techniques may help.


Your doctor may prescribe medicines that will affect the growth of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and relieve your symptoms.


Chemotherapy may be used alone or with radiation therapy. Sometimes a combination of chemotherapy medicines is more effective than a single drug.

The most commonly used combination is called CHOP. It combines four medicines: cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, vincristine, and prednisone.

Your doctor will work with you to find the best medicine for the type of lymphoma you have.

Chemotherapy causes many side effects. For help with how to deal with these, see Home Treatment. Your doctor may prescribe medicines to control nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy.

Monoclonal antibodies

Targeted therapy uses monoclonal antibodies in medicine that is injected into the body so these antibodies can attach to cancer cells and destroy them. The monoclonal antibodies used to treat NHL include:

  • Rituximab (Rituxan).
  • Alemtuzumab (Campath).
  • Ibritumomab (Zevalin).
  • Tositumomab (Bexxar).

Other medicines

Some treatments use interferon or antibiotic medicines. Your doctor will suggest the treatment that works best for your kind of lymphoma.

What to think about

You may not be able to become pregnant or father a child after chemotherapy treatment. Discuss fertility issues with your doctor before starting treatment. Chemotherapy medicines can also cause birth defects. If you are pregnant or wish to father a child, discuss the risk of birth defects with your doctor before using any chemotherapy medicine.


Surgery is often used to obtain a biopsy sample when non-Hodgkin lymphoma is being diagnosed or classified. But surgery is rarely used for treatment.

Other Treatment

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) may be given in different ways.

  • With external radiation, X-rays from a machine are aimed at the part of the body with the lymphoma.
  • With targeted radiation, monoclonal antibodies are injected into the blood and deliver radiation directly to the cancer cells. This is done by making a medicine in which a radioactive form of an element (such as iodine) is attached to a monoclonal antibody.
  • With whole-body radiation, the entire body gets radiation. This may be done if you are getting a stem cell transplant.

Stem cell transplants

A stem cell transplant may be used to treat NHL that is in remission or that has come back. Stem cells may be obtained from blood, through a peripheral blood stem cell transplant (PBSCT). Or stem cells can be obtained from bone, in a bone marrow transplant (SBMT). PBSCT is the most common method for treating NHL.

A stem cell transplant may be done right after you have very high-dose chemotherapy. (You may also have radiation to your entire body.) The stem cell transplant is done to replace your damaged bone marrow cells with healthy stem cells. A stem cell transplant may be offered as part of standard treatment or in a clinical trial.

Clinical trials

Clinical trials are research studies that try to find better NHL treatments. Your doctor may suggest that you join a clinical trial. Some treatments being used in clinical trials include lymphoma vaccines and stem cell transplants with high-dose chemotherapy. If you are interested in taking part in a clinical trial, check with your doctor to see if any are available in your area.

Complementary therapy

People sometimes use complementary therapies along with medical treatment to help relieve symptoms and side effects of cancer treatments. Some of the complementary therapies that may be helpful include:

These mind-body treatments may help you feel better. They can make it easier to cope with treatment. They also may reduce chronic low back pain, joint pain, headaches, and pain from treatments.

Before you try a complementary therapy, talk to your doctor about the possible value and potential side effects. Let your doctor know if you are already using any such therapies. They are not meant to take the place of standard medical treatment.

Related Information



  1. American Cancer Society (2011). Cancer Facts and Figures 2011. Atlanta: American Cancer Society. Available online:
  2. Freedman AS, et al. (2015). Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In VT DeVita Jr et al., eds., DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer Principles and Practices of Oncology, 10th ed., pp. 1552–1583. Philadelphia: Walters Kluwer.

Other Works Consulted

  • Bierman PJ, et al. (2016). Non-Hodgkin lymphomas. In L Goldman, A Shafer, eds., Goldman-Cecil Medicine, 24th ed., vol. 1, pp. 1257–1268. Philadelphia: Saunders.
  • Hillman R, et al. (2011). Non-Hodgkin lymphomas. In Hematology in Clinical Practice, 5th ed., pp. 279–300. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Kyle F, Hill M (2010). NHL (diffuse large B-cell lymphoma), search date January 2010. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence:
  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network (2011). Non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas. Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology, Version 4. Available online:


Current as ofDecember 19, 2018

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Anne C. Poinier MD – Internal Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD – Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD – Family Medicine
Douglas A. Stewart MD – Medical Oncology

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