Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) is a disease that affects some white blood cells that belong to the lymphatic system, known as lymphocytes. In NHL, the lymphocytes start to behave like cancerous cells and grow and multiply uncontrollably, and may not die off in the way they ought to. Because of this, NHL is referred to as a cancer.
These abnormal lymphocytes often collect in the lymph nodes, which, as a result, become swollen. Because lymphocytes circulate throughout the body, collections of abnormal lymphocytes - or 'lymphomas' - can also form in other parts of the body apart from the lymph nodes.
There are more than 30 different sorts of NHL, and everyone's experience is different. There are treatments for all the forms of NHL, and nearly all patients respond to treatment.
In those patients who are not cured, a remission can often be achieved. Even in those patients for whom a cure or remission is not possible, symptoms can be relieved. As a result, people who are treated for NHL can live normal or near-normal lives for many years.
When we hear the word cancer, we usually think of solid cancers that affect body organs, such as lung cancer or breast cancer. Solid cancers often spread throughout the body and when this happens, the outlook is usually much worse than when the cancer is confined to one particular organ. However, in some types of NHL, the cancer can be widespread at diagnosis but patients can still live to normal life expectancy. In other cases, NHL can be localised but fatal if not treated. Unlike solid cancers, lymphomas do not usually destroy tissues but instead grow around organs and can therefore cause relatively few symptoms. There are over 30 different types of NHL and accurate diagnosis of the type you have is very important.
Most patients when diagnosed with NHL think, 'why me?', and this is a natural human reaction. Many patients also worry that they will pass the disease on to their friends and family or even that their children may inherit the disease from their genes. It is important to remember that lymphoma is not something you 'catch' and it is not something related to lifestyle, chemical exposure or smoking, like lung cancer. There is nothing you have done that has caused you to develop lymphoma. Lymphoma usually arises after a sequence of events but doctors cannot identify these within a given patient. Research shows that suppression of the immune system by disease or drugs may increase the chance of developing lymphoma when the right biological triggers occur in your body, but this still does not cause the disease.
NHL is one of the most common types of cancer. About 1 in every 50 people will develop NHL in their lifetime.