Overview

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is cancer that originates in your lymphatic system, the disease-fighting network spread throughout your body. In non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, tumors develop from lymphocytes — a type of white blood cell.

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is more common than the other general type of lymphoma — Hodgkin lymphoma. Many different subtypes of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma exist. Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma and follicular lymphoma are among the most common subtypes.

Advances in diagnosis and treatment of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma have helped improve the prognosis for people with this disease.

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma care at Mayo Clinic

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma may include:

  • Painless, swollen lymph nodes in your neck, armpits or groin
  • Abdominal pain or swelling
  • Chest pain, coughing or trouble breathing
  • Persistent fatigue
  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Unexplained weight loss

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any persistent signs and symptoms that worry you.

Causes

In most cases, doctors don't know what causes non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. In some cases, it's due to a weakened immune system. But it begins when your body produces too many abnormal lymphocytes — a type of white blood cell.

Normally, lymphocytes go through a predictable life cycle. Old lymphocytes die, and your body creates new ones to replace them. In non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, your lymphocytes don't die, but continue to grow and divide. This oversupply of lymphocytes crowds into your lymph nodes, causing them to swell.

B cells and T cells

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma can begin in the:

  • B cells. B cells fight infection by producing antibodies that neutralize foreign invaders. Most non-Hodgkin's lymphoma arises from B cells. Subtypes of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma that involve B cells include diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, follicular lymphoma, mantle cell lymphoma and Burkitt lymphoma.
  • T cells. T cells are involved in killing foreign invaders directly. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma occurs less often in T cells. Subtypes of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma that involve T cells include peripheral T-cell lymphoma and cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.

Whether your non-Hodgkin's lymphoma arises from your B cells or T cells helps to determine your treatment options.

Where non-Hodgkin's lymphoma occurs

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma generally involves the presence of cancerous lymphocytes in your lymph nodes. But the disease can also spread to other parts of your lymphatic system. These include the lymphatic vessels, tonsils, adenoids, spleen, thymus and bone marrow. Occasionally, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma involves organs outside of your lymphatic system.

Risk factors

In most cases, people diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma don't have any obvious risk factors. And many people who have risk factors for the disease never develop it.

Some factors that may increase the risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma include:

  • Medications that suppress your immune system. If you've had an organ transplant, you're more susceptible because immunosuppressive therapy has reduced your body's ability to fight new illnesses.
  • Infection with certain viruses and bacteria. Certain viral and bacterial infections appear to increase the risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Viruses linked to increased non-Hodgkin's lymphoma risk include HIV and Epstein-Barr infection. Bacteria linked to an increased risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma include the ulcer-causing Helicobacter pylori.
  • Chemicals. Certain chemicals, such as those used to kill insects and weeds, may increase your risk of developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. More research is needed to understand the possible link between pesticides and the development of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
  • Older age. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma can occur at any age, but the risk increases with age. It's most common in people 60 or over.