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Hodgkin’s lymphoma

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What is Hodgkin's lymphoma?

Developed in the lymphatic system (a network of vessels and glands that make up part of the immune system), Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a fairly uncommon type of cancer. It is caused by a mutation of DNA in white blood cells.

Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell which the body produces in order to combat infections. With Hodgkin’s lymphoma, these multiply in an abnormal way and greatly reduce your ability to fight infections.

This type of cancer affects people of all ages but it’s adults in their early 20s or over the age of 70 who are mostly affected. In the UK alone, around 2,000 people are diagnosed with the condition each year.

How to spot Hodgkin’s lymphoma

The most common symptom of Hodgkins lymphoma is a swelling in one of the body’s lymph nodes – small pieces of tissue located around the body. This is usually painless, though it can sometimes ache, and often appears in the neck, armpit or groin areas.

Other symptoms of Hodgkin’s lymphoma can include:

  • Night sweats
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • A high temperature (fever)
  • A persistent cough or feeling of breathlessness
  • Persistent itching of the skin all over the body

It’s important that you seek medical attention as quickly as possible if you spot these symptoms. It can be an aggressive type of cancer and spreads quickly throughout the body. That said, it is relatively easy to treat.

What else causes Hodgkin’s lymphoma?

Though the specific cause is unknown, there are various factors that can increase your risk of developing the condition.

It can be passed on to you if you have a relative who currently has or has had Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the past. Despite this, it is not thought to be an inherited condition.

Medical conditions that weaken the immune system, such as HIV, can also place you at a higher risk, as can certain types of medication you may be on after an organ transplant, for example.

The Epstein-Barr virus (which causes glandular fever) can also increase the likelihood of developing Hodgkins lymphoma, although it’s important to note that this isn’t always the case.

You may also be at risk if you’ve undergone treatment for other types of lymphoma, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

Testing and identifying Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Hodgkin’s lymphoma can only be diagnosed by carrying out a biopsy. This involves removing some – or all – of an affected lymph node for further tests, which can reveal the type and stage you have.

The stages of Hodgkin’s lymphoma are:

Stage 1: Only one group of lymph nodes is affected, such as the ones in your neck or groin.

Stage 2: Two or more lymph node groups are affected, located either above or below your diaphragm (the muscle just underneath your lungs).

Stage 3: A greater number of lymph node groups above and below the diaphragm are affected.

Stage 4: The cancer has spread throughout the entire lymphatic system and also to other organs and/or the bone marrow.

It’s not uncommon to have further tests after having a biopsy. These can include a blood test to check your general health and the functions of certain organs, a chest X-ray to see if the cancer has progressed to the lungs, or enhanced scans such as an MRI or CT scan to reveal how far the cancer has spread.

Treating Hodgkin’s lymphoma

The treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma is completely dependent on the stage and type you have. Usually, the cancer can be treated by chemotherapy alone, or combined with radiotherapy.

Some side effects are to be expected after chemotherapy, such as feelings of fatigue and breathlessness, and you may also experience nausea and diarrhea. Other physical side effects include ulcers in the mouth and bruising easily.

In some cases, there might be further treatment needed to alleviate these effects but most people with Hodgkin’s lymphoma are able to continue their lives as normal.

Radiotherapy is most effective in treating early stage Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is given in short sessions each day over a period of weeks. Like with chemotherapy, radiotherapy can cause similar side effects though most are temporary.

For more advanced cases of Hodgkins lymphoma, additional treatment with steroids may also be required or if the initial treatment has been unsuccessful. In rare cases, a specific type of steroid is provided during chemotherapy.

After Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Hodgkin’s lymphoma is often straightforward to treat. However, you will be more at risk of developing infections and potentially ‘second’ cancers such as leukemia. You can reduce the risk of this occurring through following a healthy lifestyle and reporting any concerns to your GP.

After your treatment has ended, you may still experience long-term health complications, which is why it’s important to attend regular check-ups and keep your vaccinations up to date.

No matter how small it might seem, if you are concerned about anything following, discuss your worries with a healthcare professional.

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Page reviewed by Kerry Feltwell, Regional Clinical Lead on November 18, 2021

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