Sneaky Lymphoma Symptoms
- Zara Barton was a college student in the UK when she first started experiencing symptoms of Hodgkin lymphoma. But it took months of suffering with severely itchy skin, among other things, before she was finally diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.
- Early symptoms of lymphoma can be tricky to notice; they may include swollen lymph nodes, fatigue or unexplained weight loss.
- Being your own advocate can be key to coming to a correct cancer diagnosis and obtaining the best treatment possible while dealing with a diagnosis.
Barton, a college student in the United Kingdom, was fit and healthy when she started having severely itchy skin and breaking out into rashes. She eventually went to a doctor in May 2021 after suffering for months, but doctors were “not concerned” and nothing came of the appointment.
@zarabarton1 My diagnosis and journey so far🤍 #hodgkinslymphoma #cancer #cancerawareness #cancerdiagnosis #fyp ♬ Surrender – Natalie Taylor
“Sept 2021 – The itching became unbearable. I would break out in rashes almost everyday, and scratched my skin so much it would bruise,” she wrote in a TikTok.
Then on October 4, 2021, she found a lump.
“I discovered a lump above my collarbone and saw a doctor who wasn’t concerned,” she wrote for her TikTok followers. “I carried on for a few weeks but knew I had to go back as the lump was only getting bigger.”
@zarabarton1 Reply to @katyyymccall ❤️ #hodgkinslymphoma #cancer #cancerawareness #fyp #lymphoma #cancerdiagnosis ♬ original sound – zarabarton1
Finally, at the end of October, she saw a doctor who knew something was wrong and sent her to get a scan.
“I’d just got dropped back to uni,” she wrote of November 9, 2021. “That night I had a phone call telling me I had blood cancer. The next day I had a biopsy.”
Sadly, her pet scans revealed that she had stage three Hodgkin lymphoma. She began chemotherapy just two days before Christmas. She still has more rounds of treatment to go before she reaches a total of 12, but a recent scan showed “no signs of active cancer” and her spirits are up.
“Halfway there!!” she captioned a TikTok posted on March 3, 2022.
Understanding Hodgkin Lymphoma
Lymphoma, in general, is a cancer of the immune system that begins in the white blood cells called lymphocytes. There are more than 40 different types of the disease, but Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma are the main two sub-categories with the latter being more common. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 8,540 new cases (4,570 in males and 3,970 in females) of Hodgkin lymphoma will be found in the United States in 2022.
The type of white blood cells linked to the disease determines the distinction. If doctors are unable to detect the Reed-Sternberg cell – a giant cell derived from B lymphocytes – then it is categorized as non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
In a previous interview, Dr. Elise Chong, a medical oncologist at Penn Medicine, explained that Hodgkin lymphoma is most often seen in younger adults. And although less common, it is generally easier to cure than non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Lymphoma treatment depends greatly on the nature of your specific diagnosis. For non-Hodgkin lymphoma patients, their cancer is more likely to spread in a random fashion and be found in different groups of lymph nodes in the body. Hodgkin lymphoma cancers, on the other hand, are more likely to grow in a uniform way from one group of lymph nodes directly to another. Some lymphomas, called indolent lymphomas, might not even need to be treated right away because they’re slow-growing. In this case, careful monitoring – including imaging scans such as PET/CT – is used to track the progress of your cancer and gauge whether it needs treatment yet.
“Where I use PET/CT in my practice quite a bit is if I’m observing a patient… and there is some new symptom or situation which makes me concerned that the patient may be changing from an indolent lymphoma to a more aggressive lymphoma,” Dr. Jakub Svoboda, medical oncologist at Penn Medicine, previously told SurvivorNet. “We refer to it as transformation.”
Signs of Lymphoma
One thing to note about lymphomas is that this type of cancer often creeps in quietly, without symptoms. And even when symptoms do show up, they don’t necessarily point directly to cancer. With Barton, for example, her initial symptom was itchiness which can be caused by many things other than cancer. Even still, the Mayo Clinic sites “severe itching” as a possible symptom of Hodgkin lymphoma. She also experienced swollen glands, a lump on her collarbone, a persistent cough and weight loss as a result of her blood cancer.
In a previous interview, Dr. Chong explained that lymphoma symptoms could be difficult to detect.
“The symptoms of lymphoma, especially if you have a low-grade lymphoma, often are no symptoms,” Dr. Chong explained. “People say, but I feel completely fine, and that’s very normal.”
People with lymphoma do not always have symptoms, but common ones are:
- Swollen glands in your neck, armpit or groin
- Night sweats
- Unexplained weight loss
- Feeling tired
- Swelling in your stomach
No matter what, it’s important to communicate anything usual happening to your body, or your child’s, with a doctor. Even if you think there’s nothing to worry about, it’s good to rule out the possibility of more serious issues.
Advocating for Your Health
As we’ve seen in the case of Barton, it’s always important to pay attention to the changes happening to your body and ask professionals why. You have every right to insist your doctors investigate any possible signs of cancer, other avenues for treatment or the potential of a different diagnosis.
And even if you simply don’t know what’s causing a change to your body, you should still seek professional help. You never know when speaking up about a seemingly unimportant issue can lead to a very important diagnosis – cancer or otherwise.
“Every appointment you leave as a patient, there should be a plan for what the doc is going to do for you, and if that doesn’t work, what the next plan is,” Dr. Zuri Murrell, director of the Cedars-Sinai Colorectal Cancer Center, told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “And I think that that’s totally fair. And me as a health professional – that’s what I do for all of my patients.”
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, April Knowles explained how she became a breast cancer advocate after her doctor dismissed the lump in her breast as a side effect of her menstrual period. Unfortunately, that dismissal was a mistake. Knowles was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 39. She said the experience taught her the importance of listening to her body and speaking up when something doesn’t feel right.
“I wanted my doctor to like me,” she said. “I think women, especially young women, are really used to being dismissed by their doctors.”
Figuring out whether or not you actually have cancer based on possible symptoms is critical because early detection may help with treatment and outcomes. Seeking multiple opinions is one way to ensure you’re getting the care and attention you need.
Another thing to remember is that not all doctors are in agreement. Recommendations for further testing or treatment options can vary, and sometimes it’s essential to talk with multiple medical professionals.