Lymphomas: Diagnosis & Staging

Pictured: Julie Teruya-Feldstein

At Memorial Sloan Kettering, we use the latest techniques and state-of-the-art equipment to identify even the most uncommon forms of lymphoma. Most people require a tissue diagnosis — called a biopsy — blood analyses, and imaging studies.   



Memorial Sloan Kettering experts discuss approaches to diagnosing and treating lymphoma, a cancer that begins in the immune system’s white blood cells.


The gold standard for diagnosing lymphomas is a biopsy, a procedure in which a lymph node or a small amount of other affected tissue is partially or fully removed and analyzed under a microscope by a pathologist. There are two ways to obtain a tissue biopsy:

  • Surgery, in which a doctor removes an entire lymph node, part of a lymph node, or a piece of tissue
  • Core needle biopsy, in which a doctor inserts a hollow needle into a lymph node or tumor, often under imaging guidance, to remove a small amount of tissue or fluid from a lymph node. Physicians at our Center for Image-Guided Interventions have world-class expertise in this approach.   

We may also perform a bone marrow biopsy to determine if your lymphoma has spread to this part of the body.

Genetic and Molecular Testing

Our pathologists perform a variety of tests to determine the type of cell involved (such as B cells or T cells) and get a precise diagnosis. Some tests help determine your prognosis, which is how well you might do over time.

Other tests provide clues as to which medicines might best treat or even cure your cancer.      

Imaging Tests to Locate Tumors (Staging)

In lymphoma diagnosis, the stage of the disease refers to the extent to which it is found in the body. Lymphomas confined to one lymph node or organ are considered to be at an early stage. Lymphomas that have spread to several lymph nodes or organs are in an advanced stage.   

Most of our patients have advanced-stage lymphoma. They can still be treated, and many types of lymphoma are curable even when found in an advanced stage.

We use a variety of imaging tests to determine the precise location of lymphoma tumors throughout the body. These tests help doctors determine the stage of a cancer before treatment and assess the response to therapy once treatment has begun. Imaging often includes chest x-rays, CT scans, PET scans, and sometimes MRI.


Unlike some forms of the disease such as breast, colon, and cervical cancer, there is no way to detect lymphomas in their early stages of development. However, keeping healthy by not smoking, eating well, and staying active reduces your general cancer risk. It also makes it easier for you tolerate treatment if you ever do get lymphoma. Overall, healthy people do better with cancer treatments.