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Doctors Say These are the Signs of Lymphoma, Including Swollen Abdomen

City of Hope cancer expert shares what to know about lymphoma and symptoms to be aware of. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

An estimated 80,550 people (44,880 males and 35,670 females) are expected to be diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma this year and over 20,000 people will die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.  NHL is one of the most common types of cancer, and while the statistics are alarming, there is good news. The ACS says, "Incidence rates have declined by about 1% per year for NHL since 2015. And from 2011 to 2020, the death rate decreased by 2% per year."

In addition, lymphoma can be successfully treated. "Lymphoma is very treatable in most cases," Azra Borogovac, M.D., M.S. is a hematologist whose specialties include lymphoma and practices at City of Hope Orange County Lennar Foundation Cancer Center in Irvine, California tells us. "The 5-year survival for patients diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is 71% but this varies widely depending on the specific subtype of lymphoma. The 5-year survival rate for patients diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma is 86%." 

That said, lymphoma is a very serious condition that does require a specialist who can effectively treat the disease. Dr. Borogovac says, "If you receive a diagnosis, the best advice is to find a specialist at a cancer treatment center who specializes in lymphoma. These experts can provide the latest and most effective treatments to help you achieve a positive outcome." 


What to Know About Lymphoma

risk of cancer

Dr. Borogovac explains, "Lymphoma is a term for cancers that describe dozens of cancers that begin in part of the immune system —the body's infection-fighting network — called the lymphatic system. This system of tissues, organs and vessels is made up of pea-sized organs called nodules. This is where white blood cells cluster, connected by vessels. Because this system is so widespread, cancers involving the lymphatic system can begin in almost any body part. 

The two main kinds are Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. About 90 percent of people with lymphoma have non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The challenge with this disease is that the immune system helps fight off cancer, but with lymphoma, the immune system itself has cancer. The good news is that advanced cancer centers are finding effective treatments. Lymphoma is often highly treatable thanks to breakthrough research."


Where Lymphoma Starts in the Body

Swollen Lymph Nodes

According to Dr. Borogovac, "Lymphoma starts in tissues and organs that produce, store and carry white blood cells that fight infections. Some types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma grow slowly, while others grow faster (called high-grade lymphomas). Sometimes a lymphoma changes from a slow-growing type into a faster-growing type."

The American Cancer Society says, "Lymphomas can start anywhere in the body where lymph tissue is found. The major sites of lymph tissue are:

  • Lymph nodes: Lymph nodes are bean-sized collections of lymphocytes and other immune system cells throughout the body, including inside the chest, abdomen, and pelvis. They are connected by a system of lymphatic vessels.
  • Spleen: The spleen is an organ under the lower ribs on the left side of the body. The spleen makes lymphocytes and other immune system cells. It also stores healthy blood cells and filters out damaged blood cells, bacteria, and cell waste.
  • Bone marrow: The bone marrow is the spongy tissue inside certain bones. This is where new blood cells (including some lymphocytes) are made.
  • Thymus: The thymus is a small organ behind the upper part of the breastbone and in front of the heart. It's important in the development of T lymphocytes.
  • Adenoids and tonsils: These are collections of lymph tissue in the back of the throat. They help make antibodies against germs that are breathed in or swallowed.
  • Digestive tract: The stomach, intestines, and many other organs also have lymph tissue."


People at Risk

Woman With Sore Throat

Dr. Borogovac says, "People between the ages of 15 and 39 and, then again, after adults older than 75 are more likely to develop Hodgkin lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin lymphomas can affect many different age groups, but in general are more common with increasing age. In general, men are more likely to develop lymphoma than women, although there are subtypes that are more common in women."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, "White people are more likely than Black people to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and men are more likely than women to develop lymphoma. Scientists do not fully understand all of the causes of lymphoma, but research has found many links. For example—

  • Research has shown that people who are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) are at much higher risk of developing lymphoma.
  • Other viruses, such as human T-cell lymphotropic virus external icon and Epstein Barr virus, also have been linked with certain kinds of lymphoma.
  • People exposed to high levels of ionizing radiation have a higher risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Family history has been linked with a higher risk of Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Some studies suggest that specific ingredients in herbicides and pesticides may be linked with lymphoma, but scientists don't know how much is needed to raise the risk of developing lymphoma."


Signs of Lymphoma

Woman suffering from stomach cramps on the sofa at home.

Dr. Borogovac tells us, "Typically, there are no early warning signs of lymphoma, so diagnosis tends to occur during later stages. The symptoms are wide-ranging. These include swelling or lumps in the lymph glands, a swollen abdomen, abnormal sweating, fatigue, fever, loss of appetite, weight loss, or a rash. Because these symptoms are so common, it's good to get checked by a doctor, especially if you are experiencing more than one symptom."

The CDC says, "Symptoms of Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma include swollen lymph nodes, especially in the part of the body where the lymphoma starts to grow. Other symptoms include fever, night sweats, feeling tired, and weight loss. These symptoms can also come from other conditions. If you have any of them, talk to your doctor."


How Some Patients with Lymphoma Feel

Dr. Borogovac shares, "Perhaps the most telling symptom, as mentioned above, is a lump felt in the lymph glands –typically in the neck, armpits, and groin. These lumps have a rubbery feel and are usually painless. Additionally, people with lymphoma may feel fatigued, tired, and generally "run down."

The ACS says, "The most common symptom of HL is a lump in the neck, under the arm, or in the groin, which is an enlarged lymph node. It doesn't usually hurt, but it may become painful after drinking alcohol. The lump might get bigger over time, or new lumps might appear near it or even in other parts of the body. Still, HL is not the most common cause of lymph node swelling. Most enlarged lymph nodes, especially in children, are caused by an infection. Lymph nodes that grow because of infection are called reactive or hyperplastic nodes. These often hurt when they're touched. If an infection is the cause, the node should go back to its normal size after the infection goes away."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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