By: Dr. Thomas Incledon
What is Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and how will I know if I have it?
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) is part of a category of cancers referred to as lymphomas. This family of cancers effects specialized white blood cells called lymphocytes. In patients with NHL, these lymphocytes reproduce uncontrollably and disturb the lymphatic system, which works in a similar way as your circulatory system. The lymphatic system helps your immune system work properly, keeping you healthy, and includes lymph nodes, the spleen, thymus gland, and bone marrow.
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is specifically characterized by a lack of Reed-Sternberg cells in the blood. Physicians look for these cells, which are large, abnormal lymphocytes that may contain more than one nucleus, in specimens when diagnosing patients. Receiving the correct diagnosis helps with more effective treatment options.
Because NHL is cancer of a cell in the blood, it can use the immune and circulatory systems to get around the body faster than other types of cancers. It will inevitably travel to other parts of the body unlike a tumor, which takes longer to metastasize. This movement changes the type of treatment used for NHL cases. It also means that a patient’s condition can change quickly as the rate of metastasis may be slow at first and dramatically increase without warning or symptoms.
It especially important for patients diagnosed with NHL to act quickly. “Even when you don’t feel anything, seek treatment,” recommends Dr. Tom Incledon, founder and CEO of Causenta. “You can more effectively treat the cancer if you start early. Once you feel bad, it can often be difficult to have a positive outcome.”
Generally speaking, NHL and other lymphomas, are more common in people ages 60 and above. Younger people can develop it, but NHL essentially involves a mutation in DNA that evolves over a long period of time. One of the unique things about NHL is that it can present differently. “Some people don’t feel a lump, so they can go a long time without being aware they have cancer,” says Incledon. “But others feel a lump, which is an enlarged lymph node early on and we can treat them more quickly.” The rule of thumb here is that it is important to get regular check-ups to prevent Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Regular blood work can detect discrepancies in lymphocytes, which would trigger your doctor to order more tests.
The common symptoms of lymphoma are enlarged lymph nodes, unexplained weight loss, and fatigue. With NHL, patients also experience abdominal pain or swelling, fever or night sweats, and chest pain, coughing or trouble breathing. Lymph nodes can be found in throat, under the arms, and in the groin; swelling or pain in these areas should be examined further. Unexplained weight loss is characterized by a rapid drop of 3% or more in people who are not trying to lose weight.
As with most cancers, the direct cause of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is unknown, but there are certain risk factors of which people should be aware.
- A weakened immune system: NHL has a high association with a viral or bacterial origination point. These pathogens are typically fought off by a healthy immune system. In patients with compromised immune systems, whether from certain medications or unrelated conditions, NHL can occur more often. In order to rejuvenate your immune system, get plenty of sleep, eat healthy foods, and exercise.
- Chemicals in the environment: While it is difficult to control this risk factor, you can protect yourself by eating a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables. These foods contain phytonutrients and fatty acids that help prevent damage to the body.
- Age: Since NHL is related to damage in the DNA, the older someone is, the greater the chance that the body has undergone some sort of trauma, which can lead to developing cancer.
If you are interested in learning more about our personalized care and treatment plans for Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, contact us for a complimentary 30-minute consultation today.