Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a type of cancer that starts in the lymphatic system. It is not the same as Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is treated differently.
If you are looking for information about Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, see our Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma page.
The lymphatic system
The lymphatic system is part of your immune system. It consists of your spleen and bone marrow (amongst other things) and is connected by lots of vessels that are joined together by your lymph glands (also known as lymph nodes).
The lymphatic system helps your body fight against disease and infection. That is why, when you have a virus, you may have noticed that the lymph nodes under your armpits or in your neck or groin become swollen.
While Hodgkin’s lymphoma can affect anyone at any age, it is more common in young people aged between 15 and 29. Hodgkin’s lymphoma accounts for approximately 17% of all cancer diagnoses for young women aged between 15 and 24, and 14% of diagnoses for young men in the same age group.
The most common first symptom of Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a swelling in one of the lymph glands that last for some time. The most common place for the swelling to occur is in the lymph gland in your neck, but it can also start in your groin or under your arm pit. These swellings are usually painless, though for some people they can ache.
Some people also experience night sweats (to the extent that their sheets and night clothes are drenched), fever, weight loss or itching.
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is usually diagnosed after specialists perform a biopsy. This involves removing part of the swollen gland and examining the cells under a microscope.
If the biopsy shows that Hodgkin’s lymphoma is present in the gland, you will also need scans, x-rays and/or blood tests to help your doctors determine the position and spread of the disease.
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is treated using chemotherapy and sometimes radiotherapy. This will depend upon the stage of the disease and how you respond to the treatment. It’s best to talk to your specialist or one of the team of people caring for you about your specific treatment plan.
Chemotherapy is the main type of treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A combination of drugs will be delivered into your bloodstream with the aim of killing the cancer cells. This treatment usually takes place over a number of months.
High-dose chemotherapy, with accompanying stem cell support, may also be used if your cancer does not respond to chemotherapy, or if it returns after your initial treatment.
Radiotherapy involves using high-energy rays to target the cancer cells. It is mainly used if the disease remains active after chemotherapy, or if you have a relapse.
If you are undergoing chemotherapy, you may experience side-effects such as tiredness, sickness, diarrhoea and temporary hair loss. You will also be at greater risk of infections.
Radiotherapy can also make you feel tired and sick. You might experience skin irritation similar to sun burn and hair loss in the area that is being treated.
For more information about how side-effects can be managed, talk to your specialist or nurses, or see the side-effects section of our website.
After your treatment is complete you will still need to be seen regularly at an outpatient clinic. At this clinic, your specialist will be looking for any signs that your cancer has returned (this is known as a relapse). They will also check that your major organs, such as your heart and lungs, are still functioning correctly and haven’t been affected by your cancer treatment.
Long-term follow up
Once your risk of relapse has reduced, the focus of on-going follow up changes to looking out for potential long term side effects of treatment. The risk of long term side effects depends on the type of cancer you had and the treatment you received. A personalised surveillance plan is usually created that outlines the specific long term follow up and on-going investigations that you require. Many people are at low risk of future health problems but some will have significant on-going health needs.
Being treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma may affect your fertility and lead to an increased risk of developing a second tumour later in life. However, as treatment protocols evolve, these risks are decreasing. Talk to your specialist about the potential long-term side-effects of your treatment.
Updated December 2014, next review planned 2017.