Lymphoma is a generic term for cancer of the lymphatic system (lymph node cancer). Please note: When the lymph nodes are enlarged due to infection, medical professionals sometimes refer to them as ‘lymphomas’ as well.
The lymphatic system is part of the immune system. It consists of a complex network of lymphatic organs, including bone marrow, the tonsils, the thymus gland (located behind the breastbone), the lymphatic tissue and all the lymph nodes, as well as the spleen.
Malignant lymphoma occurs primarily within the lymphatic tissue of the lymph nodes and spreads via the lymphatic vessels. Lymph (the fluid flowing through the lymph vessels) is responsible for transporting nutrients and waste products.
There are two main types of lymphoma (lymph node cancer):
Hodgkin’s disease is a malignant type of lymphoma characterised by giant cells called Sternberg-Reed cells. These cells do not die like normal lymphocytes, but instead produce more and more abnormal cells. The disease is named after the pathologist Thomas Hodgkin, who first described the disease in 1832. Overall, the prognosis is relatively good.
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or NHL for short, is another category of malignant lymphoma. In contrast to Hodgkin’s disease, the term NHL covers a large number of different malignant lymphomas.
A distinction is made between slow-growing (indolent) and fast-growing (aggressive) lymphomas.
The tumour cells in indolent lymphomas divide and multiply slowly. The tumour cells in aggressive (highly malignant) lymphomas divide and multiply very quickly inside the body.
Indolent lymphomas can persist for years and do not cause the patient too many problems at the beginning of the disease.
In contrast, aggressive lymphomas lead to death within a few months. However, the prognosis for this type of NHL is also favourable if treatment is started early.
Lymphoma is most common among people aged 20 to 40 and those over the age of 70. Men are affected slightly more often than women. About 25,000 people die from this disease worldwide every year.