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Types of Lymphoma

Sonali Smith, MD, director of the UChicago Medicine lymphoma program, describes the types of lymphoma and their characteristics.

Lymphoma refers to a family of cancers in the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system includes the organs, tissues and vessels in the immune system responsible for fighting disease and infection throughout the body. When lymphocytes (the white blood cells of the lymphatic system) undergo a malignant change, they abnormally reproduce, creating tumors and crowding out healthy cells.

Lymphomas are divided into two categories:
Hodgkin lymphoma
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Hodgkin Lymphoma

Hodgkin lymphoma affects more than 9,000 adults and children in the United States each year. While the cause is unknown, certain factors have been shown to increase the risk of developing Hodgkin lymphoma.

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Hodgkin lymphoma can develop anywhere in the body where lymphocytes are found. It has characteristics that differentiate it from all of the other types of lymphoma, most notably the presence of a cell called the Reed-Sternberg cell. A Reed-Sternberg cell (named for the two scientists who discovered it) is a large, atypical cell that does not protect the body from infection. When it abnormally multiplies, it often forms a tumor within a lymph node and attracts inflammatory cells around it.

Treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma may include chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. In certain cases, bone marrow or stem cell transplant may be recommended, especially if the disease does not respond to initial treatment or if it returns despite an initial response to therapy.

Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

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Non-Hodgkin lymphomas affect close to 70,000 adults and children each year. The causes are unknown, but certain factors have been shown to increase the risk of developing the disease

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma comprise a varied group of 60 lymphomas, each characterized by a specific cancer cell. Slow-growing lymphomas are referred to as low-grade or indolent. Fast-growing lymphomas are referred to as high-grade or aggressive.

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Each type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma is treated differently based on the type of cancer cell and its rate of growth. Treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy and/or immunotherapy. Blood and bone marrow stem cell transplantation may also be recommended. In some cases surgery is necessary for diagnostic purposes. Our experts also offer CAR T-cell therapy, a revolutionary treatment that supercharges the body's blood cells to defeat cancer. UChicago Medicine was the first hospital in Illinois to offer this breakthrough form of immunotherapy for certain types of hard-to-treat cancers.

Primary Central Nervous System Lymphoma

Primary central nervous system (CNS) lymphoma is a rare type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma that occurs when malignant lymphocytes are found in the brain, spinal cord or cerebrospinal fluid. It usually does not spread outside of the central nervous system.

Management of primary CNS lymphoma requires an experienced multidisciplinary team. Treatment may include specialized chemotherapy, radiation therapy and steroid therapy.