Lymphoma is cancer that begins in the cells of the lymphatic system, which is responsible for fighting disease and infection. Because the immune system is found all throughout the body, lymphoma can begin almost anywhere.

“Lymphoproliferative disorders (including CLL and NHL) are abnormal accumulation of lymphocytes,” says Dr. Jeff Sharman, director of research at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute. “Lymphocytes are kind of like the brains of the immune system and generally speaking, when they become cancerous, that’s either lymphoma or some forms of leukemia.”

The main difference between chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and lymphomas is that in leukemia, the cancer cell is mainly in the bone marrow and blood, while with lymphoma it tends to be in lymph nodes and other tissues.  However, there can be some overlap between the two.

“Lymphomas and leukemia, specifically chronic lymphocytic leukemia, tend to be mature B-cells,” says Dr. Sharman. “Mature B-cells are the cells that make antibodies to fight off illnesses like the flu, E. coli and salmonella. NHL and CLL are cancers of those cells that produce those antibodies.”

How is lymphoma typically discovered?
There are two broad types of lymphoma: Hodgkin’s or non-Hodgkin’s. Non-Hodgkin’s (NHL) accounts for about 90 percent of lymphoma cases.

“I think the most common way somebody comes in is they notice a lump in their neck,” says Dr. Sharman. “Or maybe they’re in the emergency room for something unrelated and they get a CAT scan that discovers an enlarged lymph node which leads to a set of diagnostic interventions.”

Are all lymphomas similar?
Lymphomas have a diversity of clinical behaviors. There are some that are incurable, but very manageable. There are others that can grow very quickly, but may often be curable.

“There are patients who can have lymphoma for 10 or 20 years and never even require treatment for them—which is so different than what we think of as cancer— all the way up to cancers that are immediately life-threatening,” says Dr. Sharman.

Lymphoma can occur at any age but can frequently occur in younger people. It is often very treatable, and many people live for a long time after being diagnosed.

“Understanding that context of what makes them different is also then a good segue to why we treat them differently and how we treat them differently. And whether we treat them at all, because some don’t even require therapy up front.”

To learn more about lymphoma and leukemia, click here.