Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Overview

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What Is Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma? TOPICS

What is non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (also called non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, NHL, or just lymphoma) is cancer that starts in cells called lymphocytes, which are part of the body's immune system. Lymphocytes are in the lymph nodes and other lymphoid tissues (such as the spleen and bone marrow). Other types of cancer (lung or colon cancers, for example), can start in other organs and then spread to lymphoid tissue. But these cancers are not lymphomas. Lymphomas start in the lymphoid tissue and can then spread to other organs.

There are 2 main types of lymphomas.

  • Hodgkin lymphoma (also known as Hodgkin's lymphoma, Hodgkin disease, or Hodgkin's disease) is named after Dr. Thomas Hodgkin, who first described it.
  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL)

These 2 types of lymphomas behave, spread, and respond to treatment differently.

The information here is about NHL in adults. Our other documents focus on Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in Children, Lymphoma of the Skin, and Hodgkin Disease.

The rest of this document is only about non-Hodgkin lymphoma in adults.

The lymph system and lymphoid tissue

To better understand what lymphoma is, it helps to know something about the body's lymph (pronounced "limf") system. The lymph system is made up of lymphoid tissue (found in many places in the body), lymph vessels, and a clear fluid called lymph.

Lymphoid tissue includes the lymph nodes and other organs that are part of the body's immune and blood-forming systems, like the spleen and bone marrow. These tissues make some blood cells and protect against germs.


The main kind of cell found in lymphoid tissue is a type of white blood cell called the lymphocyte. There are 2 main types of lymphocytes: B cells and T cells. There are also many sub-types and stages of growth of B and T cells. Normal B cells and T cells do different jobs within the immune system.

B lymphocytes: B cells help protect the body against germs by making proteins called antibodies. The antibodies attach to the germs and attract other immune system cells that surround and digest the germs. Antibodies also attract certain blood proteins that can kill bacteria.

T lymphocytes: There are several types of T cells, each with a special job. Some T cells help destroy cells infected with germs. Other types of T cells help boost or slow the work of other immune system cells.

Different types of lymphoma can develop from these different types of lymphocytes. Most lymphomas start in the B cells. Different types of lymphoma need to be treated in different ways, so finding out the exact type of lymphoma is important.

Start and spread of NHL

Because lymphoid tissue is found in many parts of the body, lymphomas can start almost anywhere.

Types of NHL

About half of all cases of NHL are one of the two types listed below, but there are also many other types. Ask your doctor for information about your type of NHL and what that means for your treatment choices and chances for survival. You can also find more detailed information about many of the other types in our separate detailed guide, Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.

Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma: This kind makes up about 1 out of every 3 cases of lymphoma. The cells are large, and the cancer often grows quickly. It can affect any age group but is mostly found in older people. About half of all people who have this kind of lymphoma are cured with treatment. Cure is most likely if the lymphoma was found in only one part of the body (localized).

Follicular lymphoma: About 1 out of 5 cases of lymphoma in the United States are of this type. The cells tend to grow in a circular pattern in the lymph nodes. This is a slow-growing cancer. It is found most often in older people and is rare in very young people. These lymphomas often don’t need treatment when they are first found. Instead, treatment might be delayed until the lymphoma is causing problems. Although standard treatment will not often cure this cancer, people may live many years with it. Over time, some follicular lymphomas change into the fast-growing diffuse B-cell type.

Last Medical Review: 04/18/2013
Last Revised: 04/18/2013