Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

Prevention & Risk »

Finding Lymphoma Early: Do you Know the Symptoms and Risks?

Dr. Elise Chong Penn Medicine

Could You Be at Risk?

  • There are no screening tests for lymphoma, because no test has been proven to improve survival
  • Learn whether you’re at risk and watch for symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes, weight loss, night sweats, and fatigue
  • The only way to definitively diagnose lymphoma is by removing a sample of tissue from a lymph node and testing it, called a biopsy

Cancer is easiest to treat, and most likely to be cured, when doctors catch it early. We have mammograms to find breast cancer and colonoscopies to pick up colon cancer in its earliest stages. Why isn’t there a screening test for lymphoma?

“Screening is a test we do with the goal of detecting lymphoma in a very early state,” Dr. Elise Chong, medical oncologist at Penn Medicine, tells SurvivorNet. “For something to be a good screening test, we need to see that the screening helps people live longer, and helps people have better outcomes.”

Doctors currently don’t have evidence showing that finding lymphoma early helps people live longer. “That’s the second part of screening that we need to see,” Dr. Chong adds. “Because we don’t meet those two criteria, we don’t have a good screening test for lymphoma yet, although people are certainly working on this.”

What Are Your Risks?

“The patients who are diagnosed with lymphoma early, typically it’s luck,” Dr. Chong says. They may have had a symptom that made their doctor check them, or the cancer showed up on a scan or blood test that was done for another reason.

Until an effective screening test does become available, you can increase your odds of finding lymphoma early by knowing whether you’re at risk, and staying alert for symptoms.

You might be at higher risk for this cancer if you:

  • Have been infected with the HIV or Epstein-Barr virus
  • Had an organ transplant
  • Have a family history of lymphoma
  • Have been treated with radiation or chemotherapy drugs for cancer in the past
  • Have an autoimmune disease

Related: New Worldwide Recall for Textured Breast Implants — What Women Who Have Them Should Know About Their Cancer Risk

Let your doctor know about these risks, so he or she can keep a close eye on you. You may need more frequent checkups and tests.

Also watch out for lymphoma symptoms. The most common ones are:

  • Swollen glands in your neck, armpit, or groin
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss without trying
  • Feeling tired
  • Swelling in your belly

Related: 7 Sneaky Symptoms of Hodgkin Lymphoma: Doctor Told One Teen Her Itchy Rash — Later Diagnosed at Stage 4 — Was ‘Nothing to Worry About’

Many different conditions, including infections, cause these same symptoms. So don’t panic if you have them. It’s most likely something more benign, but still worth getting checked out. It’s also a good idea to see your doctor for any unusual symptoms, even if they’re not on this list.

How Doctors Diagnose Lymphoma

Most people with lymphoma see their doctor because they have a swollen gland that won’t go away, or they just don’t feel right. If you suspect there’s a problem, you can start with a visit to your family doctor.

The doctor will first ask about your symptoms and risk factors. Then you’ll have a physical exam, looking for swelling in your lymph nodes and belly. Your doctor will try to rule out other causes, such as an infection, which may require that you get a blood test.

The only way to confirm that you have lymphoma is with a biopsy — removing a small piece of a lymph node for testing. Because this test is somewhat invasive, your doctor won’t do it unless he or she has a strong suspicion that you have lymphoma.

A lab will test the sample to see if it contains cancer cells. The biopsy results can also show what type of lymphoma it is.

You might also need imaging tests such as an x-ray, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or positron emission tomography (PET) scan to find out what’s causing your symptoms, and if you do have lymphoma, to determine its stage.

Advocating for yourself is important when you’re trying to get an accurate diagnosis. If you have persistent symptoms that look like lymphoma and your doctor hasn’t sent you for a biopsy, it might be worth seeking out a second opinion.

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Dr. Elise Chong is a medical oncologist at Penn Medicine, and an assistant professor of medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. She is board certified in medical oncology and internal medicine. Read More

Prevention & Risk: Risk Factors

  • There’s no screening test for lymphoma, so being aware of risk is important
  • You may be at a higher risk for non-Hodgkin lymphoma if you’ve been exposed to a virus like HIV, have another autoimmune disease or have a family history
  • Some common symptoms are swollen glands, fever, night sweats, weight loss and fatigue
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