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Lymphoma is a type of blood cancer that affects the lymphatic system. An important part of the immune system, the lymphatic system is a vast network of organs, tissues and vessels that work together to transport fluid containing infection-fighting white blood cells (lymph) throughout the body. The cancer develops when certain white blood cells (lymphocytes) undergo abnormal changes that cause them to grow uncontrollably. Lymphoma can originate in the lymph nodes, spleen, thymus or bone marrow.

There are two main types of lymphoma—Hodgkin and Non-Hodgkin—and each has distinct characteristics and behaviors. The cancer is classified based on its cell type, spread pattern and other factors. Hodgkin lymphoma is characterized by a specific type of large, abnormal lymphocytes (Reed-Sternberg cells), which do not occur with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Additionally, Hodgkin lymphoma often spreads in an orderly manner from one group of lymph nodes to the next, while non-Hodgkin lymphoma spreads unpredictably.

Early warning signs of lymphoma

The initial symptoms of lymphoma can vary depending on its type and where it develops in the body. In many cases, the first sign is enlarged lymph nodes (lymphoma lumps). A lymph node is considered to be enlarged if it measures more than 1.5 cm. in diameter.

Common symptoms of lymphoma

Because abnormal lymphocytes do not function properly, lymphoma can impair the immune system’s ability to fight off bacteria, viruses and other harmful invaders. As atypical lymphocytes build up in the bone marrow, they can also crowd out healthy lymphocytes and hinder the production of new blood cells needed by the body. As a result, the body may become more susceptible to infections, which may be more severe or last longer than usual.

What does lymphoma feel like?

Lymphoma lumps usually have a smooth, rubbery feel and move easily under the skin when pressed. Most are painless, although a swollen lymph node may cause discomfort it becomes large enough to press on a nearby nerve or other tissue.

In addition to lymph node enlargement, lymphoma can cause spleen enlargement (splenomegaly). Located on the left side of the abdomen behind the ribcage and stomach, the spleen is a fist-shaped organ that filters the blood. Splenomegaly can occur if cancerous cells build up in the spleen or if the cancer forces the spleen to work harder than normal. Due to its location deep within the body, an enlarged spleen may not produce noticeable symptoms, although it can sometimes cause an uncomfortable sensation of fullness.

Because lymphoma cells produce certain chemicals that can increase the temperature of the body, lymphoma may cause low-grade fever, chills, daytime sweating and soaking night sweats. Additionally, as the immune system works to target and destroy the lymphoma cells, it produces certain chemicals that can irritate nerve endings, which can cause skin itching, rash and burning sensations.

Like all cancer cells, lymphoma cells tend to grow rapidly. To fuel its rapid growth, lymphoma may cause the body to expend a substantial amount of energy, which can lead to overwhelming weakness and fatigue.

Headshot of John, Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Patient
I'm very fortunate in the sense that Moffitt is one of the few cancer centers in this country that actually has experience with my disease.
Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Thriver

What does lymphoma look like?

Clusters of lymphoma lumps may be visible under the skin, particularly in the neck, armpit and groin. Some lymphoma lumps develop within a few days, while others can take several months or even years to become noticeable.

Several types of benign skin lumps, such as cysts and lipomas, can resemble lymphoma lumps. Moreover, lymph nodes normally become engorged with white blood cells when the body is fighting off an infection, but the swollen lymph nodes usually return to their normal size after the infection clears. For these reasons, it is important to discuss any unusual skin lumps with a physician, especially lymph nodes that become noticeably enlarged without a known infection.

As the body works hard to fight off lymphoma, it may deplete its energy reserves, leading to unintended weight loss and loss of muscle mass.

Symptoms of lymphoma in women

Lymphoma can develop in the female reproductive system and produce unique symptoms. The signs of female genital lymphoma can include:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • A pelvic mass
  • Pain or pressure in the abdomen or pelvis
  • Pain during sexual intercourse

Symptoms of advanced lymphoma

If lymphoma spreads beyond its site of origin to other tissues or organs, additional symptoms may develop. The signs can vary based on the part of the body affected:

  • Lungs – Shortness of breath, coughing and chest pain
  • Abdomen – Abdominal pain, bloating and early fullness (satiety) when eating
  • Bones – Bone pain and recurrent fractures
  • Brain or spinal cord – Neurological symptoms, such as headaches, seizures and changes in mental status

Other possible causes of lymphoma symptoms

As with any type of cancer, an early and accurate diagnosis of lymphoma is the key to ensuring appropriate treatment and the best possible outcome and quality of life. It is important to promptly discuss any unusual changes with a physician because lymphoma-like symptoms can be caused by other health-related conditions, such as:

Influenza (flu)

Influenza viruses are easily transmitted via respiratory droplets that become airborne whenever an infected individual sneezes, coughs or speaks. A flu virus can also spread through contact with a contaminated surface, such as a doorknob or countertop. Flu is a common illness that can cause lymphoma-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, fatigue and swollen lymph nodes.

Mononucleosis (mono)

A viral infection caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), mono is a self-limiting illness that typically resolves on its own. Until it does, however, the illness can cause symptoms that mimic those of early-stage lymphoma, such as fever, chills, lymph node enlargement, spleen enlargement and overwhelming fatigue.

Cat scratch fever

A bacterial infection caused by Bartonella henselae, cat scratch fever typically occurs after a cat scratch or bite. Most cases are self-limited and do not require antibiotic treatment. Some of the symptoms can be similar to those of lymphoma, such as lymph node enlargement, fever and general malaise.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

A viral infection transmitted through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, HIV attacks the body’s immune system, specifically the CD4 cells (T cells) that help it fight off infections. HIV requires antiretroviral therapy for management. If left untreated, it can gradually destroy the immune system and cause acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Some early symptoms of HIV can resemble those of lymphoma, including fever, chills, night sweats, swollen lymph nodes and fatigue. However, HIV symptoms are typically more flu-like and may also include a sore throat, rash and body aches.

Benefit from world-class care at Moffitt Cancer Center

The multispecialty team in Moffitt’s comprehensive Malignant Hematology Program offers the latest diagnostic and treatment options for all types of blood cancer, including lymphoma. In recognition of our groundbreaking research, clinical trials and scientific excellence, the National Cancer Institute has designated Moffitt a Comprehensive Cancer Center. For this reason and many others, we continually attract top physicians and scientists from around the world. Together, we are making great progress toward one day finding a cure.

If you would like to learn more about lymphoma signs and symptoms, you can request an appointment with a specialist in our Malignant Hematology Program by calling 1-888-663-3488 or submitting a new patient registration form online. We do not require referrals.