Why does one person get non-Hodgkin lymphoma, while another person doesn’t? Researchers have focused on a few risk factors that might increase someone’s likelihood of getting diagnosed with this cancer. Some risk factors have more scientific evidence to back them up than others.
Radiation is one risk that has been linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma in studies. People who’ve been treated with radiation therapy for other forms of cancer are more likely to develop lymphoma later on. Repeated exposure to radiation during imaging tests such as CT scans could also be a risk, but mainly for younger people.
“For patients who are younger than 18, there does seem to be very slightly increased risk of developing lymphoma,” Dr. Elise Chong, oncologist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, tells SurvivorNet. “But for patients who are older than that, there has not been any data that shows that you’re more likely to develop lymphoma due to the number of CT scans you’ve received.” She says that is “very reassuring” to her when prescribing these tests for her patients.
A chemical called glyphosphate is the active ingredient in Roundup and certain other weed killers. In 2015, the World Health Organization classified glyphosphate as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Juries have since awarded millions of dollars to people who claimed these products caused their cancer. In 2019, a jury in California awarded $80 million to a man who said Roundup caused his non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Studies have been investigating whether weedkillers cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but so far they haven’t proven a link. “The way we need to study that is through a large epidemiologic study looking at people who were exposed versus people who weren’t and whether or not they developed lymphoma. But that data currently doesn’t exist,” Dr. Chong says.
A few other non-Hodgkin lymphoma risk factors have more science to back them up, including:
Age. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma usually starts in people who are in their 60s and older, although it’s possible for younger people to get diagnosed. Hodgkin lymphoma, on the other hand, is more common in younger people.
Gender. Most types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma are slightly more likely to affect men than women.
Race and ethnicity. In the United States, this cancer is more common in white people than in Black or Asian Americans.
Family history. Having a close family member with non-Hodgkin lymphoma — a parent, brother or sister, or child — could make you more likely to develop it, too.
Infections. Both bacterial and viral infections have been linked to this cancer, including the Epstein-Barr virus and HIV.
Autoimmune diseases. In people with diseases such as lupus or Sjögren syndrome, the overactive immune response may cause lymphocytes to multiply faster than normal.
A weakened immune system. People whose immune system has been weakened by anti-rejection drugs after an organ transplant or by HIV/AIDS have a higher risk for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Remember that, even if you do have one of these risks, there’s only a very small chance that you’ll ever develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma. And it is possible to get lymphoma, even if you don’t have a single risk for it.
When it comes to factors such as your genes, age, or gender, there isn’t much you can do to change them. Yet you can reduce your exposure to chemicals, including weed killers and pesticides.
Try to avoid using these products at home, and if you do need to use them at work, take precautions. “Wear whatever protective equipment you have available … thick gloves, a mask, goggles when spraying,” says Dr. Chong. “I think that that’s certainly healthier overall, even if we haven’t directly shown that that increases your risk of developing lymphoma.”
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