What Is Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma?

Outline of human figure showing lymph vessels and lymph nodes throughout body.

Cancer occurs when cells in the body begin to change and multiply out of control. These cells can form lumps of tissue called tumors. Lymphoma is cancer that starts in cells in the body's lymphatic system. Most types of cancer in the lymphatic system are non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Understanding the lymphatic system

The lymphatic system helps your body fight disease and infections. This system is a network of tubes, or vessels. The vessels pass through tissue all over your body. A clear fluid called lymph flows through the vessels. Small organs called lymph nodes are found along this network of vessels. Lymph nodes are found throughout the body. Some are grouped together in the neck, underarms, and groin area. You may feel swollen or enlarged nodes in these areas when you have a cold.

Some of the body’s internal organs are also part of the lymphatic system. These organs include the bone marrow, spleen, thymus, and tonsils. Other organs, such as parts of the digestive tract, also have lymph tissue.

When non-Hodgkin lymphoma forms

The lymphatic system stretches over the whole body. So non-Hodgkin lymphoma can start almost anywhere in your body. Lymphoma can also spread from the lymphatic system to other tissues of the body. This spread is called metastasis.

Treatment options for non-Hodgkin lymphoma

You and your healthcare provider will discuss a treatment plan that’s best for your needs. Treatment options may include:

  • Radiation therapy. This uses focused rays of energy to kill cancer cells.

  • Chemotherapy. This uses strong medicines to kill cancer cells.

  • Immunotherapy. This uses medicines to help the body’s own immune system fight cancer.

  • Targeted therapy. This uses medicines that target parts of cancer cells that are different from normal cells.

  • Stem cell transplant. This kills cancer cells with high doses of chemotherapy (and sometimes radiation) given to kill all the cancer cells. The high doses permanently kill the existing blood and immune system. So after the treatment is completed, stem cells are given to rebuild the body's blood and immune system.