Primary CNS Lymphoma Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Patient Information [NCI]
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General Information About Primary CNS Lymphoma
Primary central nervous system (CNS) lymphoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the lymph tissue of the brain and/or spinal cord.
Lymphoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the lymph system. The lymph system is part of the immune system and is made up of the lymph, lymph vessels, lymph nodes, spleen, thymus, tonsils, and bone marrow. Lymphocytes (carried in the lymph) travel in and out of the central nervous system (CNS). It is thought that some of these lymphocytes become malignant and cause lymphoma to form in the CNS. Primary CNS lymphoma can start in the brain, spinal cord, or meninges (the layers that form the outer covering of the brain). Because the eye is so close to the brain, primary CNS lymphoma can also start in the eye (called ocular lymphoma).
Anatomy of the lymph system, showing the lymph vessels and lymph organs including lymph nodes, tonsils, thymus, spleen, and bone marrow. Lymph (clear fluid) and lymphocytes travel through the lymph vessels and into the lymph nodes where the lymphocytes destroy harmful substances. The lymph enters the blood through a large vein near the heart.
Having a weakened immune system may increase the risk of developing primary CNS lymphoma.
Anything that increases your chance 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.
Primary CNS lymphoma may occur in patients who have acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) or other disorders of the immune system or who have had a kidney transplant. For more information about lymphoma in patients with AIDS, see the PDQ summary on AIDS-Related Lymphoma Treatment.
Tests that examine the eyes, brain, and spinal cord are used to detect (find) and diagnose primary CNS lymphoma.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
- Physical exam and 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 habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
- Neurological exam: A series of questions and tests to check the brain, spinal cord, and nerve function. The exam checks a person's mental status, coordination, ability to walk normally, and how well the muscles, senses, and reflexes work. This may also be called a neuro exam or a neurologic exam.
- Slit-lamp eye exam: An exam that uses a special microscope with a bright, narrow slit of light to check the outside and inside of the eye.
- 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 brain and spinal cord. A substance called gadolinium is injected into the patient through a vein. The gadolinium collects around the cancer cells so they show up brighter in the picture. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
- PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): 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.
- Lumbar puncture: A procedure used to collect cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from the spinal column. This is done by placing a needle between two bones in the spine and into the CSF around the spinal cord and removing a sample of the fluid. The sample of CSF is checked under a microscope for signs of tumor cells. The sample may also be checked for the amounts of protein and glucose. A higher than normal amount of protein or lower than normal amount of glucose may be a sign of a tumor. This procedure is also called an LP or spinal tap.
Lumbar puncture. A patient lies in a curled position on a table. After a small area on the lower back is numbed, a spinal needle (a long, thin needle) is inserted into the lower part of the spinal column to remove cerebrospinal fluid (CSF, shown in blue). The fluid may be sent to a laboratory for testing.
- Stereotactic biopsy: A biopsy procedure that uses a computer and a 3-dimensional (3-D) scanning device to find a tumor site and guide the removal of tissue so it can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.
The following tests may be done on the samples of tissue that are removed:
- Flow cytometry: A laboratory test that measures the number of cells in a sample, the percentage of live cells in a sample, and certain characteristics of cells, such as size, shape, and the presence of tumor markers on the cell surface. The cells are stained with a light-sensitive dye, placed in a fluid, and passed in a stream before a laser or other type of light. The measurements are based on how the light-sensitive dye reacts to the light.
- Immunohistochemistry: A test that uses antibodies to check for certain antigens in a sample of tissue. The antibody is usually linked to a radioactive substance or a dye that causes the tissue to light up under a microscope. This type of test may be used to tell the difference between different types of cancer.
- Cytogenetic analysis: A laboratory test in which cells in a sample of tissue are viewed under a microscope to look for certain changes in the chromosomes. Other tests, such as fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH), may also be done to look for certain changes in the chromosomes.
- Complete blood count (CBC) with differential: A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the following:
- The number of red blood cells and platelets.
- The number and type of white blood cells.
- The amount of hemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen) in the red blood cells.
- The portion of the blood sample made up of red blood cells.
Complete blood count (CBC). Blood is collected by inserting a needle into a vein and allowing the blood to flow into a tube. The blood sample is sent to the laboratory and the red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets are counted. The CBC is used to test for, diagnose, and monitor many different conditions.
- 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.
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
The prognosis (chance of recovery) depends on the following:
- The patient's age and general health.
- The level of certain substances in the blood and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).
- Where the tumor is in the central nervous system, eye, or both.
- Whether the patient has AIDS.
Treatment options depend on the following:
- The stage of the cancer.
- Where the tumor is in the central nervous system.
- The patient's age and general health.
- Whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has recurred (come back).
Treatment of primary CNS lymphoma works best when the tumor has not spread outside the cerebrum (the largest part of the brain) and the patient is younger than 60 years, able to carry out most daily activities, and does not have AIDS or other diseases that weaken the immune system.
Staging Primary CNS Lymphoma
After primary central nervous system (CNS) lymphoma has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the brain and spinal cord or to other parts of the body.
When primary CNS lymphoma continues to grow, it usually does not spread beyond the central nervous system or the eye. The process used to find out if cancer has spread is called staging. It is important to know if cancer has spread to other parts of the body in order to plan treatment. The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:
- CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, 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. For primary CNS lymphoma, a CT scan is done of the chest, abdomen, and pelvis (the part of the body between the hips).
- PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): 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. A PET scan and CT scan may be done at the same time. This is called a PET-CT.
- 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).
- Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy: The removal of bone marrow, blood, and a small piece of bone by inserting a hollow needle into the hipbone or breastbone. A pathologist views the bone marrow, blood, and bone under a microscope to look for signs of cancer.
Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy. After a small area of skin is numbed, a bone marrow needle is inserted into the patient's hip bone. Samples of blood, bone, and bone marrow are removed for examination under a microscope.
There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.
Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:
- Tissue. The cancer spreads from where it began by growing into nearby areas.
- Lymph system. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the lymph system. The cancer travels through the lymph vessels to other parts of the body.
- Blood. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the blood. The cancer travels through the blood vessels to other parts of the body.
Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.
When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.
- Lymph system. The cancer gets into the lymph system, travels through the lymph vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.
- Blood. The cancer gets into the blood, travels through the blood vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.
The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if primary CNS lymphoma spreads to the liver, the cancer cells in the liver are actually lymphoma cells. The disease is metastatic CNS lymphoma, not liver cancer.
There is no standard staging system for primary CNS lymphoma.
Recurrent Primary CNS Lymphoma
Recurrent primary central nervous system (CNS) lymphoma is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. Primary CNS lymphoma commonly recurs in the brain or the eye.
Treatment Option Overview
There are different types of treatment for patients with primary CNS lymphoma.
Different types of treatment are available for patients with primary central nervous system (CNS) lymphoma. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Surgery is not used to treat primary CNS lymphoma.
Three standard treatments are used:
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy:
- External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Because primary CNS lymphoma spreads throughout the brain, external radiation therapy is given to the whole brain. This is called whole brain radiation therapy.
- Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer.
The way the radiation therapy is given depends on whether the patient has primary CNS lymphoma and AIDS. External radiation therapy is used to treat primary CNS lymphoma.
High-dose radiation therapy to the brain can damage healthy tissue and cause disorders that can affect thinking, learning, problem solving, speech, reading, writing, and memory. Clinical trials have tested the use of chemotherapy alone or before radiation therapy to reduce the damage to healthy brain tissue that occurs with the use of radiation therapy.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid (intrathecal chemotherapy), an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy).
The way the chemotherapy is given depends on where the tumor is in the CNS or eye. Primary CNS lymphoma may be treated with systemic chemotherapy, intrathecal chemotherapy and/or intraventricular chemotherapy, in which anticancer drugs are placed into the ventricles (fluid -filled cavities) of the brain. If primary CNS lymphoma is found in the eye, anticancer drugs are injected directly into the vitreous humor (jelly-like substance) inside the eye.
Intrathecal chemotherapy. Anticancer drugs are injected into the intrathecal space, which is the space that holds the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF, shown in blue). There are two different ways to do this. One way, shown in the top part of the figure, is to inject the drugs into an Ommaya reservoir (a dome-shaped container that is placed under the scalp during surgery; it holds the drugs as they flow through a small tube into the brain). The other way, shown in the bottom part of the figure, is to inject the drugs directly into the CSF in the lower part of the spinal column, after a small area on the lower back is numbed.
A network of blood vessels and tissue, called the blood-brain barrier, protects the brain from harmful substances. This barrier can also keep anticancer drugs from reaching the brain. In order to treat CNS lymphoma, certain drugs may be used to make openings between cells in the blood-brain barrier. This is called blood-brain barrier disruption. Anticancer drugs infused into the bloodstream may then reach the brain.
Steroids are hormones made naturally in the body. They can also be made in a laboratory and used as drugs. Glucocorticoids are steroid drugs that have an anticancer effect in lymphomas.
New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
High-dose chemotherapy with stem cell transplant
High doses of chemotherapy are given to kill cancer cells. Healthy cells, including blood -forming cells, are also destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cell transplant is a treatment to replace the blood-forming cells. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient or a donor and are frozen and stored. After the patient completes chemotherapy, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body's blood cells.
Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to attack cancer cells. Targeted therapies usually cause less harm to normal cells than chemotherapy or radiation therapy do. Monoclonal antibody therapy is one type of targeted therapy being studied in the treatment of primary CNS lymphoma.
Monoclonal antibody therapy is a cancer treatment that uses antibodies made in the laboratory from a single type of immune system cell. These antibodies can identify substances on cancer cells or normal substances that may help cancer cells grow. The antibodies attach to the substances and kill the cancer cells, block their growth, or keep them from spreading. Monoclonal antibodies are given by infusion. They may be used alone or to carry drugs, toxins, or radioactive material directly to cancer cells. Rituximab is a type of monoclonal antibody used to treat newly diagnosed primary CNS lymphoma in patients who do not have AIDS.
Treatment for primary CNS lymphoma may cause side effects.
For information about side effects caused by treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.
Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.
Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI's clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.
Follow-up tests may be needed.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.
Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
Treatment Options for Primary CNS Lymphoma
For information about the treatments listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.
Primary CNS Lymphoma
Treatment of primary central nervous system (CNS) lymphoma may include the following:
- Whole brain radiation therapy.
- Chemotherapy followed by radiation therapy.
- Chemotherapy and targeted therapy (rituximab) followed by high-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant.
- A clinical trial of high-dose chemotherapy with stem cell transplant.
- A clinical trial of high-dose chemotherapy and targeted therapy (rituximab), with or without stem cell transplant or whole brain radiation therapy.
Primary Intraocular Lymphoma
Treatment of primary intraocular lymphoma may include the following:
- Chemotherapy (intraocular or systemic).
- Whole brain radiation therapy.
Recurrent Primary CNS Lymphoma
Treatment of recurrent primary central nervous system (CNS) lymphoma may include the following:
- Radiation therapy (if not received in earlier treatment).
- A clinical trial of a new drug or treatment schedule.
Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.
To Learn More About Primary CNS Lymphoma
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about primary CNS lymphoma, see the following:
- Lymphoma Home Page
For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:
- About Cancer
- Chemotherapy and You: Support for People With Cancer
- Radiation Therapy and You: Support for People With Cancer
- Coping with Cancer
- Questions to Ask Your Doctor about Cancer
- For Survivors and Caregivers
About This PDQ Summary
Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.
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Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the treatment of primary CNS lymphoma. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
Reviewers and Updates
Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Updated") is the date of the most recent change.
The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board.
Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Clinical trials can be found online at NCI's website. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service (CIS), NCI's contact center, at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
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PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Primary CNS Lymphoma Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated
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Last Revised: 2019-04-09
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