Hodgkin’s lymphoma, also known as Hodgkin’s disease, is cancer in the lymphatic system. This is an uncommon cancer that accounts for less than 1 percent of all cases of cancer in this country. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is much more common. The lymphatic system is part of the body’s immune system. It helps the body fight disease and infection. The lymphatic system includes a network of thin lymphatic vessels that branch throughout the body like blood vessels. Lymphatic vessels carry lymph which is a colorless watery fluid that contains infection-fighting cells called lymphocytes. Along this network of vessels are the small organs known as lymph nodes. Clusters of lymph nodes are found in your neck, groin, underarm, chest, and abdomen. Other parts of the lymphatic system are the spleen, bone marrow, thymus, and tonsils. Hodgkin’s lymphoma, as well as other cancers, occurs when normal cells continue to divide when the new cells aren’t needed and they form a mass known as a tumor. Because lymphatic tissue is found throughout the body, Hodgkin’s lymphoma can start almost anywhere in the body.
There is no known cause of Hodgkin’s disease; it has even been difficult to pinpoint any risk factors. Many people with the following risk factors won’t get Hodgkin’s lymphoma and the one’s that do get the disease may not have any of the risk factors. Hodgkin’s lymphoma occurs most often in people between the ages of 15 and 34 and in people over the age of 55. It is more common in men than women. Brothers and sisters of those with Hodgkin’s lymphoma have a higher chance of getting the disease and the Epstein-Barr virus (cause of infectious mononucleosis) is an infectious agent that may be associated with an increased chance of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Symptoms of Hodgkin’s lymphoma include persistent fatigue, painless swelling of lymph nodes in neck, groin, or underarm, night sweats, fever and chills, itching, unexplained weight loss, and coughing. These symptoms can occur with many smaller illnesses such as the flu, but it is important to see the doctor if these symptoms don’t go away after two weeks or they tend to go away and return repeatedly. If you go to see your doctor and you are worried you have Hodgkin’s lymphoma, your doctor will ask you about your medical history and do a full exam including feeling your lymph nodes. Your doctor may also choose to do blood tests or even X-rays, a CT scan, or an MRI. Diagnosis depends on a biopsy of tissue from your lymph node.
With advances in diagnosis and treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, this disease that was once uniformly fatal is now highly treatable with potential for full recovery. Treatment for Hodgkin’s disease depends on many different factors. It depends on the stage of the cancer, your overall health, your age, symptoms, and the size of the enlarged lymph nodes. When the disease progresses and involves more lymph nodes or other organs, chemotherapy is the preferred treatment. Chemotherapy uses specific drugs in combination that travel throughout your body and kill tumor cells. Radiation therapy is used when the disease is confined to one area. With radiation therapy high-energy X-rays are used to kill cancer cells. The radiation therapy is usually used on the affected lymph nodes and the nearest set of lymph nodes to reduce the chances of the disease spreading. Sometimes it is necessary to use a combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is very rare, but if you have ongoing symptoms of painless swelling of lymph nodes, fatigue, or weight loss, be sure to see your doctor.