Lymphoma FAQs

Hematologist Stephen Ansell, M.D., answers the most frequently asked questions about lymphoma.

Well, many times we don't actually know. We do know what exactly happens in the cells. We can see that the cells undergo a genetic change. And as they do that, they may grow quicker than they should, and they may persist and not die off like they should. That causes them to slowly accumulate over time. But exactly what brought about that genetic change, we don't always know.

This is not a disease that's passed down in families, although families can be more susceptible. But we think there are some susceptibility genes that may put you at risk for being more likely to get lymphoma. That does, however, require something else to happen, often in the way of exposures to toxins or viruses or something else.

Well, I think it's important to recognize what the goals of treatment are. Low-grade lymphomas have an advantage in that they can take a very long time to cause any symptoms, and certainly a very long time to put the patient's health at risk. However, we do not have a curative treatment that will fix the cancer right away. So we want to weigh up the potential risks and side effects that come with treatment compared to, clearly, the risks and side effects that come from the cancer. So, if you have a cancer that is very low-grade, growing very slowly, giving you no symptoms, we would hold off on treatment and only initiate it when you truly need it.

Well, important to know that chemotherapy may have two components. Chemotherapy, or chemical drugs that are targeting the cancer, immunotherapy, or antibody treatments that are going after proteins that are on the outside of the cancer or lymphoma cells. The goal of chemotherapy is to kill quickly- growing cells, which is a good thing because lymphoma, many times, those cells are growing quickly. The challenge, however, is there are healthy cells that may also be growing quickly. Immunotherapy, as I mentioned, binds or attacks proteins on the outsides of cells. But some of the lymphoma cells and some of the normal cells have the same proteins. So those cells may be depleted, and your immune system may become a little bit more suppressed as one of the potential side effects of therapy.

Well, I really wish that was true. Unfortunately, that's not exactly correct. There isn't a treatment or exercise program that directly targets or goes after the lymphoma cells. Generally, however, what a healthy balanced diet and a good exercise program is doing is improving your general well-being, improving your immune system function, and allowing you to tolerate the chemotherapy and fight against the cancer to a greater degree. The good news is that many studies have shown that a healthy patient who's in good shape actually has a better outcome when receiving treatment for lymphoma. So that's a strong motivation for you to be healthy by eating well and exercising regularly.

Get as much information as you can. Partner with your physician, your nurse practitioner, your PA and other members of the team and ask questions. The goal moving forward is for you to have the best outcome possible. So that sharing of information between your team and you is critical to your outcome and the best results we could hope for.

Tests and procedures used to diagnose lymphoma include:

  • Physical exam. Your doctor checks for swollen lymph nodes, including in your neck, underarm and groin, as well as a swollen spleen or liver.
  • Removing a lymph node for testing. Your doctor may recommend a lymph node biopsy procedure to remove all or part of a lymph node for laboratory testing. Advanced tests can determine if lymphoma cells are present and what types of cells are involved.
  • Blood tests. Blood tests to count the number of cells in a sample of your blood can give your doctor clues about your diagnosis.
  • Removing a sample of bone marrow for testing. A bone marrow aspiration and biopsy procedure involves inserting a needle into your hipbone to remove a sample of bone marrow. The sample is analyzed to look for lymphoma cells.
  • Imaging tests. Your doctor may recommend imaging tests to look for signs of lymphoma in other areas of your body. Tests may include CT, MRI and positron emission tomography (PET).

Other tests and procedures may be used depending on your situation.

Many types of lymphoma exist and knowing exactly which type you have is key to developing an effective treatment plan. Research shows that having a biopsy sample reviewed by an expert pathologist improves the chances for an accurate diagnosis. Consider getting a second opinion from a specialist who can confirm your diagnosis.


Which lymphoma treatments are right for you depends on the type and stage of your disease, your overall health, and your preferences. The goal of treatment is to destroy as many cancer cells as possible and bring the disease into remission.

Lymphoma treatments include:

  • Active surveillance. Some forms of lymphoma are very slow growing. You and your doctor may decide to wait to treat your lymphoma when it causes signs and symptoms that interfere with your daily activities. Until then, you may undergo periodic tests to monitor your condition.
  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy fast-growing cells, such as cancer cells. The drugs are usually administered through a vein, but can also be taken as a pill, depending on the specific drugs you receive.
  • Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses high-powered beams of energy, such as X-rays and protons, to kill cancer cells.
  • Bone marrow transplant. A bone marrow transplant, also known as a stem cell transplant, involves using high doses of chemotherapy and radiation to suppress your bone marrow. Then healthy bone marrow stem cells from your body or from a donor are infused into your blood where they travel to your bones and rebuild your bone marrow.
  • Other treatments. Other drugs used to treat lymphoma include targeted drugs that focus on specific abnormalities in your cancer cells. Immunotherapy drugs use your immune system to kill cancer cells. A specialized treatment called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-T cell therapy takes your body's germ-fighting T cells, engineers them to fight cancer and infuses them back into your body.

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Clinical trials

Explore Mayo Clinic studies testing new treatments, interventions and tests as a means to prevent, detect, treat or manage this condition.

Alternative medicine

No supplements have been found to treat lymphoma. But integrative medicine may help you cope with the stress of a cancer diagnosis and the side effects of cancer treatment.

Talk to your doctor about your options, such as:

  • Physical activity
  • Art therapy
  • Meditation
  • Music therapy
  • Relaxation exercises
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage

Coping and support

A lymphoma diagnosis can be overwhelming. With time you'll find ways to cope with the stress and uncertainty of cancer. Until then, you may find it helps to:

  • Learn about lymphoma. If you'd like to know more about your lymphoma, ask your doctor for the details of your cancer — the type, the stage and your prognosis. Ask for good sources of up-to-date information on your treatment options. Knowing more about your cancer and your options may help you feel more confident when making treatment decisions.
  • Keep your friends and family close. Your friends and family can be emotional support and provide the practical support you'll need, too, such as helping take care of your house if you're in the hospital.
  • Find someone to talk with. Find a good listener with whom you can talk about your hopes and fears. This may be a friend or a family member. The concern and understanding of a counselor, medical social worker, clergy member or cancer support group also may be helpful.

    Ask your doctor about support groups in your area. You might also contact a cancer organization such as the National Cancer Institute or the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

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Preparing for your appointment

Make an appointment with your primary care doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you. If your doctor suspects you have lymphoma, he or she may refer you to a doctor who specializes in diseases that affect the blood cells (hematologist).

Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready, and what to expect from your doctor.

What you can do

  • Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions. At the time you make the appointment, be sure to ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as restrict your diet.
  • Write down any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
  • Write down key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes.
  • Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements you're taking.
  • Consider taking a family member or friend along. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember all the information provided during an appointment. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot.
  • Write down questions to ask your doctor.

Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions can help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For lymphoma, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:

  • Do I have lymphoma?
  • What type of lymphoma do I have?
  • What stage is my lymphoma?
  • Is my lymphoma aggressive or slow growing?
  • Will I need more tests?
  • Will I need treatment?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • What are the potential side effects of each treatment?
  • How will treatment affect my daily life? Can I continue working?
  • How long will treatment last?
  • Is there one treatment you feel is best for me?
  • If you had a friend or loved one in my situation, what advice would you give that person?
  • Should I see a lymphoma specialist? What will that cost, and will my insurance cover it?
  • Do you have brochures or other printed material that I can take with me? What websites do you recommend?

In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask additional questions.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may allow more time to cover other points you want to address. Your doctor may ask:

  • When did you first begin experiencing symptoms?
  • Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
  • How severe are your symptoms?
  • What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
  • What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?
  • Has anyone in your family had cancer, including lymphoma?
  • Have you or has anyone in your family had conditions affecting the immune system?
  • Have you or your family been exposed to toxins?

Lymphoma care at Mayo Clinic

Dec. 14, 2022

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