Spotting Lymphoma Symptoms
- Ryan Thompson, 14, was recently diagnosed with stage two Hodgkin lymphoma after his mother started taking note of odd symptoms like itchy skin, swollen glands and weight loss. Now, she’s trying to inform others about signs of the disease.
- Early symptoms of lymphoma can be tricky to notice; they may include swollen lymph nodes, fatigue or unexplained weight loss.
- Here at SurvivorNet, we’re always encouraging people to advocate for themselves when it comes to cancer and, more generally, health care. But when it comes to a child, the parent must become the advocate and make sure any possible signs of cancer are fully and expeditiously addressed.
Then, much to her surprise, Ryan even lost weight and developed itchy skin all over his body. Audrey thought it was an allergy, but his condition did not improve when she tried things like switching out her laundry detergent. When Ryan started complaining of “swollen glands” in his neck, Audrey took him to a doctor where he was swiftly transferred to a hospital for blood tests and scans.
“They said to me not to be totally alarmed, but they were sending Ryan to a cancer ward,” the mother said. “Suddenly, I was in complete shock.”
Just a week later, the family, who live in Falkirk, Scotland received his diagnosis: Hodgkin lymphoma.
“They found the cancer in his neck and chest and said it was stage two,” Audrey said. “It was terrible, but it was actually a relief because it wasn’t in stage three, four or five, which meant he wouldn’t need as much chemo and probably not radiotherapy.”
He started his chemotherapy treatments earlier this month, according to a GoFundMe page for Ryan. Now, Ryan is mostly confined to his house to reduce his risk of catching COVID-19 and other illnesses, and the social boy has been struggling.
“We’re hoping for his treatment to end in August but it’s hard for him,” Audrey said. “His twin brother Kyle can still go out with his friends but Ryan has to stay in.”
Now, with his treatments underway and a hopeful outlook for her son, Audrey is trying to educate others about the signs of lymphoma.
“I would never have thought that itching or weight loss was a sign of cancer,” she said. “I just want other parents to be aware of the signs. Ryan was diagnosed quite early but if it went on longer we could have been in a different situation.
“You need to know your kids. It’s hard when boys are teenagers, they don’t tell you anything, but I just knew something was wrong.”
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. 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 Children
Here at SurvivorNet, we always encourage people to advocate for themselves when it comes to cancer and, more generally, health care. When it comes to a child, the parent must become the advocate – just as we saw in the case above.
And even if you’re called ‘pushy’ or people dismiss the concerns you have for your child, it’s important to remember that you never know when speaking up about a seemingly unproblematic 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 Murell, 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 also talked about self advocacy and 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 have – or your child has– cancer based on possible symptoms is critical because early detection may help with treatment and outcomes. Seeking multiple opinions is one way make sure you are or your child is getting the proper care and attention. You should also try to remember 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.