The most common first symptom of Hodgkin's lymphoma is a swelling, often in your neck, upper chest, armpit or groin. This is a swollen lymph gland which is usually painless. It will feel firm rather than hard. These lumps may appear slowly over time. Other symptoms that some people may have include:
- sweating at night
- having a high temperature
- unexplained weight loss
- an itchy feeling all over your body
- feeling tired
- pain after drinking alcohol
- a cough
- shortness of breath
These symptoms aren't always caused by Hodgkin's lymphoma, but if you have them, see your GP.
To diagnose Hodgkin’s lymphoma, first your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. They will also review your medical history and may take a blood sample.
Then, if your GP suspects you may have Hodgkin's lymphoma, they will refer you to a specialist at a hospital for further tests. These may include the following.
- You may have blood tests to check your general health.
- You may have a chest X-ray to look for swollen lymph glands inside your chest.
- Your doctor may take a biopsy of your lymph gland. They may remove a whole gland or part of it to check in a laboratory. This may be done under local or general anaesthetic, depending on how deep underneath your skin the affected lymph gland is.
- You may have a CT scan and/or PET (positron emission tomography) scan to look for signs of the disease in other parts of your body.
- Your doctor may take a biopsy of your bone marrow. They may remove a sample of your bone marrow to check in a laboratory. This is usually done under a local anaesthetic and uses a needle to take a sample from your bone.
If you’re diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, these tests will also look at whether the cancer has spread and how big it is. This is described by the ‘stage’ of the disease; from stage 1 (no spread) to stage 4 (extensive spread).
Your treatment will depend on the type of Hodgkin's lymphoma you have, whether it has spread and your general health. Most people have chemotherapy, and some will have radiotherapy too.
A team of professionals, called a multidisciplinary team (MDT), will guide you through your treatment. This team may include:
- a haematologist (a doctor who specialises in treating conditions affecting the blood)
- an oncologist (a doctor who specialises in cancer care)
- a radiologist (a doctor who specialises in using X-rays to diagnose conditions)
- a radiation oncologist (or clinical oncologist) who uses X-rays to treat conditions
- a nurse specialist
- a counsellor
They can explain your treatment options and help you make choices.
After treatment, you will have an assessment to check if there are any remaining signs of your cancer. If there are, you’ll need more treatment. Then, you will have regular check-ups with your doctor to check for any signs of the cancer returning. You will have check-ups every three months or so to begin with and gradually they will become less frequent.
About eight or nine out of every 10 people with Hodgkin’s lymphoma go into remission after their treatment and it goes away for good. Remission means the signs and symptoms of cancer have decreased or disappeared. Your cancer can be in complete or partial remission. Complete means there are no signs of your cancer. Partial means some but not all signs have disappeared.
Chemotherapy uses medicines to destroy cancer cells. These medicines are usually given through a drip into a vein in your arm. You may be given a few different medicines over a few months. You won’t receive the medicines everyday – you will have breaks to allow your body to recover from the side-effects of the medicines.
Side-effects are the unwanted effects of chemotherapy. They can include losing your hair, feeling sick, tired and having diarrhoea.
Sometimes you may be given steroid medicines (e.g. prednisolone) alongside your chemotherapy. These are to help the chemotherapy to work and are taken as tablets.
Radiotherapy uses X-rays to destroy cancer cells. A radiotherapy treatment only takes a few minutes. A beam of radiation is targeted to the cancer to shrink it. Depending on the type of Hodgkin’s lymphoma you have and its stage, you might have radiotherapy after your chemotherapy. You’ll need to go to the hospital for radiotherapy treatment, usually from Monday to Friday, and then have a rest over the weekend. How long your course of treatment lasts will depend on the area you’re having it on. Your doctor will be able to explain how long they expect you will need treatment for.
Monoclonal antibodies are medicines that can recognise and target cancer cells. They aren’t used very often for people with Hodgkin's lymphoma. You may be given a monoclonal antibody medicine called rituximab if you have the nodular lymphocyte predominant type.
Stem cell transplant
If you still have Hodgkin’s lymphoma after your chemotherapy, or it comes back, you may need very high doses of chemotherapy. This could kill off special cells in your body, known as stem cells. Your body needs stem cells to make blood cells. To stop you becoming unwell, you will have a stem cell transplant. This is an injection of stem cells into your body to replace the ones you lost. See our FAQs for more information about this treatment option.
The exact reasons why you may develop Hodgkin’s lymphoma aren't fully understood. There are certain things that increase your chance of getting it, including:
- a weakened immune system (for example, if you have HIV/AIDS, or you’re taking medicines that suppress your immune system)
- having the Epstein-Barr viral infection (the virus that causes glandular fever)
- previously having had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- gender – Hodgkin's lymphoma is slightly more common in men than women
- age – although it can affect people of all ages, Hodgkin’s lymphoma is more common in people aged 15 to 30 and over 55 years
Where do the cells for a stem cell transplant for Hodgkin’s lymphoma come from?
The cells are usually taken from you before you have high-dose chemotherapy, but sometimes they come from another person (usually a close relative).
If your first chemotherapy for classical Hodgkin’s lymphoma hasn’t worked well, you may need a higher dose of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. Your body can use the stem cells to make new blood cells to replace the ones the high-dose chemotherapy destroys.
The stem cells are usually taken from your own blood or bone marrow before you begin high-dose chemotherapy. If the stem cells are collected from your blood, you’ll be given injections of a substance called ‘growth factor’ first. This will increase the number of stem cells in your blood. The stem cells are collected through a needle and drip (usually in your arm).
If the stem cells are collected from your bone marrow, a doctor will use a needle to take bone marrow from your pelvic bone. You will have a general anaesthetic, which means you will be asleep during the procedure. Your stem cells will be put back in your body through a drip after you have finished your high-dose chemotherapy. This is known as an autologous stem cell transplant or autologous bone marrow transplant.
Sometimes, you may need a stem cell or bone marrow transplant from another person. This is called an allogeneic transplant. It will usually be from a close family member because their cells are most likely to match your own. You may need to have this type of transplant if Hodgkin's lymphoma is affecting your bone marrow. Another reason you may need an allogeneic transplant is if your cancer has returned after a previous stem cell transplant of your own cells.
How will a stem cell transplant for Hodgkin’s lymphoma affect me?
The side-effects usually come from the high-dose chemotherapy you have before the transplant, not the transplant itself. This treatment affects everyone differently and the length of time it takes to recover varies.
Your immune system won't be very strong after high-dose chemotherapy and you’ll be more susceptible to infections. Although your stem cell transplant will help your body get stronger, this can take several weeks. You’ll need to stay in hospital for this time and will probably be nursed in a private room to stop you getting infections.
Most side-effects come from the high-dose chemotherapy rather than the transplant. You’ll feel very tired. You may also lose your appetite, get a sore mouth and have sickness and diarrhoea.
Your doctor might give you antibiotics and mouthwashes to help prevent you getting an infection and you’ll probably need to have blood transfusions. Once recovered, you will need to have new immunisations against diseases, as you will have lost any immunity you previously had.
Some people need to have a stem cell or bone marrow transplant from another person. This is called an allogeneic transplant. If you have this type of transplant, there’s a chance you could develop a condition called ‘graft versus host disease’. This happens when white blood cells donated from the other person attack tissues in your body because they don’t recognise them. This causes symptoms such as diarrhoea, weight loss and rashes. You will be given medicines to prevent this.
Will I be able to have children after treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma?
Chemotherapy and radiotherapy can reduce your chances of having children or cause infertility. Sometimes this is only temporary. You may be able to have your sperm or eggs frozen before starting treatment, so you can use them to try to have children in the future.
Hodgkin's lymphoma is commonly treated with chemotherapy. Some chemotherapy medicines can cause infertility, particularly if you have very high doses. Radiotherapy may also affect your fertility if used in your pelvic or abdominal area. Ask your doctor about your treatment and whether it can affect your chances of having children.
It's sometimes possible for a clinic to freeze your eggs (if you’re a woman) or sperm (if you’re a man) before you start treatment. This is so you can use them with infertility treatment to have children in the future.
Sometimes, it’s not possible to freeze and store sperm or eggs before starting chemotherapy. Be aware that, unfortunately, infertility treatments don’t always work.
Your doctor will be able to give you more information about your options and let you know about sources of further information and support.
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