Each year, approximately 75,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer that begins in white blood cells from the lymphatic system. The two primary types of lymphoma are Hodgkin, which mostly affects younger people, and non-Hodgkin disease. Nearly 60 lymphoma subtypes have been discovered.
The incidence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma has doubled in recent years, with the greatest increase in the elderly. People who have a weakened immune system due to chronic infections or the use of immunosuppressive drugs have a higher risk of developing lymphoma. Researchers are working to understand genetic factors that may increase the risk of developing this illness.
It can be challenging to diagnose lymphoma because the tumors often resemble a normal immune system response to infections or other illnesses, explains Memorial Sloan Kettering hematopathologist Ahmet Dogan.
Doctors examine a tissue sample, called a biopsy, under the microscope, to look for abnormal appearance in lymphocytes. Additional tests are used to examine the genetic characteristics of the lymphocytes, which may help to identify the subtype and optimal treatment approach.
Radiation oncologist Joachim Yahalom explains that radiation therapy, given in low doses, is one of the most effective treatments for lymphoma. For lymphomas that are widespread, doctors use radiation therapy in combination with chemotherapy.
For several years, doctors have mainly relied on the same chemotherapy regimens to treat lymphoma patients, says medical oncologist Anas Younes. Now new information about the biology of lymphoma holds promise for developing novel therapies.
Meanwhile, researchers are developing diagnostic technologies that may offer more-detailed information about the genetic makeup of a patient’s lymphoma cells —information that is being used to develop individually tailored treatments.