What is Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma?
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a form of childhood (and adult) cancer that develops in the immune system, specifically in lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell responsible for fighting infection and disease. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma usually begins in B-cell lymphocytes, which are responsible for making germ-fighting antibodies, but it can also develop in T-cell lymphocytes, which are generally responsible for destroying cells infected with viruses, fungi, or bacteria. Because lymphocytes and other forms of lymphatic tissue are found in organs throughout the body, non-Hodgkin lymphoma can start almost anywhere in the body, but is usually found in organs that play a large role in fighting infection, such as the lymph nodes (located in the neck and chest, under the armpit, and in the groin), the spleen, the thymus, the adenoids and tonsils, the digestive tract, and the bone marrow.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma accounts for about 5% of all childhood cancers in the United States today.
What are the symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma?
Because non-Hodgkin lymphoma begins in lymphatic tissue that can be found throughout the body, it can cause a wide variety of different symptoms depending on the specific location of the cancer cells. As with many forms of childhood cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma often does not cause detectable symptoms until it reaches a large size. The most common symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma include:
- Enlarged lymph nodes, usually felt or seen as bumps on the neck, armpit, collarbone, or groin
- Coughing or shortness of breath
- Swollen and distended abdomen
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss
- Night sweats
- Fatigue and unexplained exhaustion
- Severe and/or frequent infection
- Frequent bruising and/or bleeding
Unfortunately, because non-Hodgkin lymphoma involves the immune system, many of these symptoms can easily be mistaken for a common cold, virus, or childhood infection. For instance, swollen lymph nodes are one of the primary symptoms of this type of childhood cancer, but most cases of enlarged lymph nodes are, in fact, caused by routine infection rather than non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Lymphoma in the abdomen can be more readily distinguished from infection, as it usually manifests as a swollen, painful belly. It can involve the build-up of fluid in the abdomen area, a swollen spleen constricting the stomach, or bowel or kidney blockage. Common symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma located in the abdomen include:
- Feeling full
- Loss of appetite
- Pain and discomfort
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Low urine output
- Swelling of the extremities
In cases where the lymphoma grows in the thymus or lymph nodes in the chest, the growth can begin to press against the vein that carries blood from the head and upper torso to the heart. Known as SVC Syndrome, this symptom can lead to swelling in the face, neck, arms, and chest, cause breathing trouble, headaches, and dizziness, and can be life-threatening if not treated immediately.
How do I seek help for my child?
If you believe your child is exhibiting the symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, your first step is to express your concerns to your child’s pediatrician. Because many of these symptoms are likely to be caused by a routine infection rather than cancer, the pediatrician will likely begin with close observation and a course of antibiotics to rule out infection. If the symptoms do not resolve, or your child’s health continues to deteriorate, the pediatrician will most likely pursue diagnostic testing in the form of a biopsy of the affected tissues. If the biopsy confirms non-Hodgkin lymphoma, your child will be referred to a pediatric oncologist to begin treatment as soon as possible.
About the American Childhood Cancer Organization
The American Childhood Cancer Organization (ACCO) is a non-profit charity dedicated to helping kids with cancer and their families navigate the difficult journey from cancer diagnosis through survivorship. Internationally, the ACCO is the sole US member of Childhood Cancer International (CCI), the largest patient-support organization for childhood cancer in the world. At the national level, the ACCO promotes the critical importance of ensuring continued funding into new and better treatment protocols for childhood cancer. At the grassroots level, the ACCO is focused on the children: developing and providing educational tools for families and learning resources for children in order to make the lives of children and their families easier and brighter during this difficult time. Many of our resources are available free of charge for families coping with childhood cancer.
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