Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Overview

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Treating Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma TOPICS

Chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Chemotherapy (often called chemo) is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Usually the drugs are given into a vein (IV) or by mouth (as pills). Once the drugs enter the bloodstream, they spread through the body, making this treatment very useful for lymphoma. Chemo drugs are also sometimes put right into the spinal fluid to treat lymphoma cells in the brain or spinal cord.

Doctors give chemo in cycles, in which a round of treatment is followed by a rest period to allow the body time to recover. Each chemo cycle usually lasts for a few weeks. Most treatments are given in the doctor's office (or clinic) on an outpatient basis, but some must be given in the hospital.

A patient might start on one combination of drugs and later be switched to a different combination if the first one doesn't seem to be working.

For NHL, the antibody drug rituximab (Rituxan®) is often given along with chemo.

Possible side effects

Chemo drugs kill cancer cells, but they also damage normal cells, causing side effects. The exact side effects depend on the type and dose of drugs used and the length of time they are taken. Side effects can include the following:

  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Greater chance of infection (from low white blood cell counts)
  • Easy bruising or bleeding (from low platelet counts)
  • Fatigue (from low red blood cell counts)

Most of these side effects are short term and go away after treatment ends. There are often ways to lessen these side effects. For example, there are drugs to help prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting.

Certain chemo drugs have specific possible side effects. For instance, some drugs can damage the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, testicles, ovaries or brain. If serious side effects occur, chemo may have to be reduced or stopped, at least for a short time.

Chemotherapy can also cause side effects that might not occur until years after treatment. For example, in rare cases, people may develop leukemia several years later.

Tumor lysis syndrome can be a side effect of chemo. It occurs when many cancer cells die in a short period, often during treatment with chemo. When the cells die, they break open and release their contents into the bloodstream. This "cell waste" can affect the kidneys, heart, and nervous system. Because this only happens if many cells die at once, it is most common in the first cycle of chemo. To prevent this problem, the patient may be given extra fluids and certain drugs.

For more information about chemotherapy, see our document A Guide to Chemotherapy. If you want to know more about the chemo drugs used to treat NHL, see our document Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.


Last Medical Review: 08/27/2014
Last Revised: 10/01/2014