Childhood Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Treatment (PDQ®)

As a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, a core part of our mission is to educate patients and the community about cancer. The following summary is trusted information from the NCI.

General Information About Childhood Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

The lymph system is part of the immune system and is made up of the following:

  • Lymph: Colorless, watery fluid that travels through the lymph system and carries white blood cells called lymphocytes. Lymphocytes protect the body against infections and the growth of tumors.
  • Lymph vessels: A network of thin tubes that collect lymph from different parts of the body and return it to the bloodstream.
  • Lymph nodes: Small, bean-shaped structures that filter lymph and store white blood cells that help fight infection and disease. Lymph nodes grow along the network of lymph vessels found throughout the body. Clusters of lymph nodes are found in the underarm, pelvis, neck, abdomen, and groin.
  • Spleen: An organ that makes lymphocytes, filters the blood, stores blood cells, and destroys old blood cells. The spleen is on the left side of the abdomen near the stomach.
  • Thymus: An organ in which lymphocytes grow and multiply. The thymus is in the chest behind the breastbone.
  • Tonsils: Two small masses of lymph tissue at the back of the throat. The tonsils make lymphocytes.
  • Bone marrow: The soft, spongy tissue in the center of large bones. Bone marrow makes white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.
Anatomy of the lymph system, showing the lymph vessels and lymph organs including lymph nodes, tonsils, thymus, spleen, and bone marrow. Lymph (clear fluid) and lymphocytes travel through the lymph vessels and into the lymph nodes where the lymphocytes destroy harmful substances. The lymph enters the blood through a large vein near the heart.

Because lymph tissue is found throughout the body, childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma can begin in almost any part of the body. Cancer can spread to the liver and many other organs and tissues.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma can occur in both adults and children. Treatment for children is different than treatment for adults. (See the PDQ summary on Adult Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Treatment for more information.)

The specific type of lymphoma is determined by how the cells look under a microscope. The 4 major types of childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma are:

There are other types of lymphoma that occur in children. These include the following:

  • Lymphoproliferative disease associated with a weakened immune system.
  • Rare non-Hodgkin lymphomas that are more common in adults than in children.

These and other symptoms may be caused by childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Wheezing.
  • High-pitched breathing sounds.
  • Swelling of the head or neck.
  • Trouble swallowing.
  • Painless swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck, underarm, stomach, or groin.
  • Fever for no known reason.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Night sweats.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient's health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. One of the following types of biopsies may be done:
  • Immunohistochemistry study: A laboratory test in which a substance such as an antibody, dye, or radioisotope is added to a sample of cancer tissue to test for certain antigens. This type of study is used to tell the difference between different types of cancer.
  • Cytogenetic analysis: A laboratory test in which cells in a sample of tissue are viewed under a microscope to look for certain changes in the chromosomes.
  • Endoscopy: A procedure to look at organs and tissues inside the body to check for abnormal areas. An endoscope is inserted through an incision (cut) in the skin or opening in the body, such as the mouth. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue or lymph node samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of disease.
  • Mediastinoscopy: A surgical procedure to look at the organs, tissues, and lymph nodes between the lungs for abnormal areas. An incision (cut) is made at the top of the breastbone and a mediastinoscope is inserted into the chest. A mediastinoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue or lymph node samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.
  • Anterior mediastinotomy: A surgical procedure to look at the organs and tissues between the lungs and between the breastbone and heart for abnormal areas. An incision (cut) is made next to the breastbone and a mediastinoscope is inserted into the chest. A mediastinoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue or lymph node samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer. This is also called the Chamberlain procedure.
  • Thoracoscopy: A surgical procedure to look at the organs inside the chest to check for abnormal areas. An incision (cut) is made between two ribs and a thoracoscope is inserted into the chest. A thoracoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue or lymph node samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer. In some cases, this procedure is used to remove part of the esophagus or lung.
  • Thoracentesis: The removal of fluid from the space between the lining of the chest and the lung, using a needle. A pathologist views the fluid under a microscope to look for cancer cells.
  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on:

  • The type of lymphoma.
  • The stage of the cancer.
  • The number of places outside of the lymph nodes to which the cancer has spread.
  • Whether the lymphoma has spread to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).
  • Whether there are certain changes in the chromosomes.
  • The type of initial treatment.
  • The patient's general health.

Stages of Childhood Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the lymph system or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. Some of the tests that are used to diagnose childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma are also used to stage the disease. The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:

The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:

  • Through tissue. Cancer invades the surrounding normal tissue.
  • Through the lymph system. Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels to other places in the body.
  • Through the blood. Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood to other places in the body.

When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

Stage I childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Cancer is found in one group of lymph nodes or one area outside the lymph nodes, but no cancer is found in the abdomen or mediastinum (area between the lungs).

In stage I childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer is found:

  • in one group of lymph nodes; or
  • in one area outside the lymph nodes.

No cancer is found in the abdomen or mediastinum (area between the lungs).

Stage II childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Cancer is found in one area outside the lymph nodes and in nearby lymph nodes (a); or in two or more areas above (b) or below (c) the diaphragm; or cancer started in the stomach, appendix, or intestines (d) and can be removed by surgery.

In stage II childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer is found:

  • in one area outside the lymph nodes and in nearby lymph nodes; or
  • in two or more areas above or below the diaphragm, and may or may not have spread to nearby lymph nodes; or
  • to have started in the stomach or intestines and can be completely removed by surgery. Cancer may or may not have spread to certain nearby lymph nodes.
Stage III childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Cancer is found in at least one area above and below the diaphragm (a); or cancer started in the chest (b); or cancer started in the abdomen and spread throughout the abdomen (c); or in the area around the spine (not shown).

In stage III childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer is found:

  • in at least one area above the diaphragm and in at least one area below the diaphragm; or
  • to have started in the chest; or
  • to have started in the abdomen and spread throughout the abdomen, and cannot be completely removed by surgery; or
  • in the area around the spine.
Stage IV childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Cancer is found in the bone marrow, brain, or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Cancer may also be found in other parts of the body.

In stage IV childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer is found in the bone marrow, brain, or cerebrospinal fluid. Cancer may also be found in other parts of the body.

Treatment for childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma is based on whether the cancer is low-stage or high-stage. Low-stage lymphoma has not spread beyond the area in which it began. High-stage lymphoma has spread beyond the area in which it began. Stage I and stage II are usually considered low-stage. Stage III and stage IV are usually considered high-stage.

Recurrent Childhood Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

Recurrent childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. Childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma may come back in the lymph system or in other parts of the body.

Treatment Option Overview

Different types of treatment are available for children with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment.

Because cancer in children is rare, taking part in a clinical trial should be considered. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Treatment will be overseen by a pediatric oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating children with cancer. The pediatric oncologist works with other health care providers who are experts in treating children with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and who specialize in certain areas of medicine. These may include the following specialists:

Side effects from cancer treatment that begin during or after treatment and continue for months or years are called late effects. Late effects of cancer treatment may include the following:

  • Physical problems.
  • Changes in mood, feelings, thinking, learning, or memory.
  • Second cancers (new types of cancer).

Some late effects may be treated or controlled. It is important to talk with your child's doctors about the effects cancer treatment can have on your child. (See the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer for more information.)

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid (intrathecal chemotherapy), an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas. Intrathecal chemotherapy may be used to treat childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma that has spread, or may spread, to the brain. When used to prevent spread to the brain, it is called CNS prophylaxis. The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.Intrathecal chemotherapy. Anticancer drugs are injected into the intrathecal space, which is the space that holds the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF, shown in blue). There are two different ways to do this. One way, shown in the top part of the figure, is to inject the drugs into an Ommaya reservoir (a dome-shaped container that is placed under the scalp during surgery; it holds the drugs as they flow through a small tube into the brain). The other way, shown in the bottom part of the figure, is to inject the drugs directly into the CSF in the lower part of the spinal column, after a small area on the lower back is numbed.

Combination chemotherapy is treatment using 2 or more anticancer drugs.

See Drugs Approved for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma for more information.

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. When radiation therapy is used to prevent spread to the brain, it is called CNS prophylaxis. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

This treatment is a way of giving high doses of chemotherapy and then replacing blood-forming cells destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the bone marrow or blood of the patient or a donor and are frozen and stored. After the chemotherapy is completed, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body's blood cells.

See Drugs Approved for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma for more information.

Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells. Monoclonal antibodies and tyrosine kinase inhibitors are two types of targeted therapy being studied in the treatment of childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Monoclonal antibody therapy is a cancer treatment that uses antibodies made in the laboratory from a single type of immune system cell. These antibodies can identify substances on cancer cells or normal substances that may help cancer cells grow. The antibodies attach to the substances and kill the cancer cells, block their growth, or keep them from spreading. Monoclonal antibodies are given by infusion. They may be used alone or to carry drugs, toxins, or radioactive material directly to cancer cells.

Tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) block signals that tumors need to grow. Some TKIs also keep tumors from growing by preventing the growth of new blood vessels to the tumors.

See Drugs Approved for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma for more information.

Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests. This is sometimes called re-staging.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

Treatment Options for Childhood Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

A link to a list of current clinical trials is included for each treatment section. For some types or stages of cancer, there may not be any trials listed. Check with your doctor for clinical trials that are not listed here but may be right for you.

Low-stage Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in Children and Adolescents

Standard treatment of low-stage (stage I or II) non-Hodgkin lymphoma in children and adolescents is usually surgery followed by combination chemotherapy. Treatment of anaplastic large cell lymphoma that affects the skin is usually surgery and/or radiation therapy.

New treatments are being studied in clinical trials for low-stage non-Hodgkin lymphoma in children and adolescents.

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage I childhood large cell lymphoma, stage I childhood small noncleaved cell lymphoma, stage I childhood lymphoblastic lymphoma, stage I childhood anaplastic large cell lymphoma, stage II childhood large cell lymphoma, stage II childhood small noncleaved cell lymphoma, stage II childhood lymphoblastic lymphoma and stage II childhood anaplastic large cell lymphoma. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

High-stage Childhood B-cell Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

Standard treatment for high-stage (stage III or IV) B-cell (Burkitt and Burkitt-like) non-Hodgkin lymphoma in children and adolescents is usually combination chemotherapy. If cancer is found in the brain or spinal cord, intrathecal or systemic chemotherapy may be given to treat this area.

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage III childhood large cell lymphoma, stage III childhood small noncleaved cell lymphoma, stage IV childhood large cell lymphoma and stage IV childhood small noncleaved cell lymphoma. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

High-stage Childhood Lymphoblastic Lymphoma

Standard treatment of high-stage (stage III or IV) lymphoblastic lymphoma in children and adolescents is usually combination chemotherapy with or without radiation therapy to the brain.

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage III childhood lymphoblastic lymphoma and stage IV childhood lymphoblastic lymphoma. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

High-stage Childhood Anaplastic Large-cell Lymphoma

Standard treatment of high-stage (stage III or IV) anaplastic large-cell lymphoma in children and adolescents is usually combination chemotherapy. If cancer is found in the brain or spinal cord, intrathecal or systemic chemotherapy may be given to treat this area.

New combinations of chemotherapy are being studied in clinical trials for high-stage anaplastic large-cell lymphoma in children and adolescents.

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage III childhood anaplastic large cell lymphoma and stage IV childhood anaplastic large cell lymphoma. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Lymphoproliferative Disease Associated with a Weakened Immune System

Standard treatment of lymphoproliferative disease in children and adolescents with weakened immune systems may include the following:

One of the treatments being studied in clinical trials is stem cell transplant followed by donor lymphocyte infusion or an infusion of T-cell lymphocytes that have been treated in the laboratory.

To Learn More About Childhood Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

For more information from the National Cancer Institute about childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma, see the following:

For more childhood cancer information and other general cancer resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:



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