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What is lymphoma?

Lymphomas refers to types of cancer that begin in the lymphatic system (the various lymph glands around the body). Lymphomas are the sixth most common form of cancer overall (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer).1

There are two main types of lymphoma, which spread and are treated differently:

The risk of being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma by age 85 is 1 in 39. The risk of being diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma by age 85 is 1 in 414. There are around 40 subtypes of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and they vary in how fast they grow and spread, and how sick people feel. They are not all treated the same.

The incidence of lymphomas in Australia has risen over the past 20 years and is continuing to rise. Multiple studies have found no clear reason for the increase. Compared with a number of preventable cancers, there is only a weak association between lymphoma and known risk factors (see following). So, while a healthy lifestyle helps reduce your overall cancer risk, most individual cases of lymphoma cannot be attributed to any specific cause. Research continues.

In 2015, 5679 new cases of lymphoma were diagnosed in Australia. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is over six times more common, with 5031 new cases diagnosed in 2015, compared with 647 cases of Hodgkin lymphoma.

In 2016, there were 1553 deaths caused by lymphomas in Australia.

Lymphoma symptoms

Common symptoms include:

  • unexplained fever
  • swelling of one or more lymph glands such as in the neck, armpits, or at the angles of the legs
  • swollen abdomen
  • abnormal sweating, especially at night
  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • bruising or bleeding easily
  • weight loss
  • rash or itching.

Causes of lymphoma

Exposure to radiation and certain types of chemicals can put some people at higher risk. Benzene and some agricultural chemicals have been implicated; people exposed in the workplace, who can be at highest risk, should follow occupational health guidelines to minimise exposure. For people whose immune system is suppressed, exposure to viruses such as the Epstein-Barr virus or HIV can also be at increased risk of lymphoma. 


Diagnosis for lymphoma

Tests usually used to diagnose lymphoma include:

  • imaging tests including CT, MRI and PET scans
  • blood tests
  • gland biopsy
  • bone marrow biopsy
  • laparotomy or thoracotomy (may be necessary to obtain a gland for diagnosis).

The most important test is a biopsy. Whilst a needle aspirate biopsy is easier, it can miss a diagnosis of lymphoma and so an "open biopsy" to obtain a larger section of the affected lymph gland or part of the body is much more likely to provide an accurate diagnosis. 

Treatment for lymphoma

Treatment depends on the type of lymphoma, the stage of the disease (i.e. how far it has spread around the body) and how fast it is likely to grow.


The extent of the cancer is determined by a CT scan of the abdomen and bone marrow biopsy. A PET scan, where available, provides extra information about distant spread, including to bones. CT scans show enlarged lymph glands; whereas a PET scan shows lymph glands that are metabolically abnormally active (but may not yet be swollen) and may be the more accurate test for staging.

Types of treatment

Treatment options include chemotherapy, radiotherapy and monoclonal antibodies. Surgery, which can be successful to remove early breast, bowel and a number of other cancers, doesn't work in lymphoma. In some cases, a stem cell transplant with strong chemotherapy just beforehand is required if the lymphoma has recurred or where there is a high likelihood of recurrence in the future.

Early Hodgkin disease is treated with combination chemotherapy plus radiotherapy. Radiotherapy may be required for bulky or non-responding sites.

For patients with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, some can be managed with localised radiotherapy alone, or radiotherapy plus combination chemotherapy.

If the non-Hodgkin lymphoma is fast-growing, or "aggressive", successful treatment usually requires starting chemotherapy immediately. For early-stage disease and advanced stages with bulky sites, "involved field radiotherapy", which only targets the affected site, is usually required.

Palliative care

In some cases of lymphoma, your medical team may talk to you about palliative care. Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life by alleviating symptoms of cancer, without aiming to cure it.

As well as slowing the spread of lymphoma, palliative treatment can relieve pain and help manage other symptoms. Treatment may include radiotherapy, chemotherapy or other drug therapies. 


Screening for lymphoma

There are no routine screening tests, and no direct blood tests, for lymphoma.

Having a parent, brother or sister who has had Hodgkin lymphoma or non-Hodgkin lymphoma slightly increases a person's risk of developing it. However, this family link is uncommon and most people with either type of lymphoma do not have a family history.

Prognosis of lymphoma

An individual's prognosis usually depends on the type and stage of cancer, as well as their age and general health at the time of diagnosis.  

Preventing lymphoma

There are no proven measures to prevent lymphoma, except potentially the avoidance of causes such as HIV infection. 


Understanding Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, Cancer Council NSW  ©2015. Last medical review of this booklet: December 2015

Understanding Hodgkin Lymphoma, Cancer Council NSW  © 2017. Last medical review of this booklet: May 2017

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ACIM (Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality) Books. Canberra: AIHW.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2017. Cancer in Australia 2017. Cancer series no. 101. Cat. no. CAN 100. Canberra: AIHW

1) Excluding non-melanoma skin cancer, which is the most commonly diagnosed cancer according to general practice and hospitals data, however there is no reporting of cases to cancer registries.


For more information

For support and information on cancer and cancer-related issues, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 (cost of a local call). This is a confidential service.


  • View Cancer Booklets including information on surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Includes additional information on treatment, making decisions around treatment and managing side effects of lymphoma treatment.

Also included, detailed information on looking after yourself during and after treatment, and links to both professional and community support. 

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  • participating in an event or
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This page was last updated on: Friday, March 22, 2019

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