Types of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in Children

Non-Hodgkin lymphomas (NHLs) are most often classified by how the cancer cells look under the microscope. Key features include the size and shape of the cells and how they are arranged (their pattern of growth).

  • Size is described as large or small.
  • Shape is described as cleaved (showing folds or indentations) or non-cleaved.
  • The growth pattern may be either diffuse (cancer cells are scattered) or follicular (cells are arranged in clusters).

Not every lymphoma is described using all 3 features. Special lab tests are often needed to accurately classify lymphomas. These are discussed in Tests for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in Children.

The most common types of NHL in children are different from those in adults. Nearly all NHLs in children are 1 of 3 main types:

  • Lymphoblastic lymphoma
  • Burkitt lymphoma (small non-cleaved cell lymphoma)
  • Large cell lymphoma

All 3 types are high grade (meaning they grow quickly) and diffuse, but it's important to find out which type a child has because they are treated differently.

There are many other types of NHL. These are much more common in adults and are rare in children, so they are not discussed further heret.

Lymphoblastic lymphoma

Lymphoblastic lymphoma (LBL) accounts for about 25% to 30% of NHL in children in the United States. Boys are about twice as likely to get LBL as girls.

The cancer cells of LBL are very young lymphocytes called lymphoblasts. They are the same cells as those seen in acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in children. In fact, if more than 25% of the bone marrow is made up of lymphoblasts, the disease is classified and treated as ALL instead of lymphoma.

Most cases of LBL develop from T cells and are called precursor T-lymphoblastic lymphomas. These lymphomas often start in the thymus, forming a mass in the area behind the breast bone and in front of the trachea (windpipe). This can cause problems breathing, which may be the first symptom of LBL.

Less often, LBL develops in the tonsils, lymph nodes of the neck, or other lymph nodes. It can spread very quickly to the bone marrow, other lymph nodes, the surface of the brain, and/or the membranes that surround the lungs and heart.

A small fraction of LBLs develop from B cells, and are called precursor B-lymphoblastic lymphomas. These lymphomas more often begin in lymph nodes outside the chest, particularly in the neck. They can also involve the skin and bones.

LBL can grow very quickly and can often cause trouble breathing, so it needs to be diagnosed and treated quickly.

Burkitt lymphoma

Burkitt lymphoma, also known as small non-cleaved cell lymphoma, accounts for about 40% of childhood NHL in the United States. It is most often seen in boys, usually when they are around 5 to 10 years old.

A subtype of Burkitt lymphoma, sometimes called Burkitt-like lymphoma or non-Burkitt lymphoma, shares some features with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (described below) when seen under the microscope, but it is still treated like Burkitt lymphoma.

Burkitt lymphoma is named after the doctor who first described it in African children. In certain parts of Africa, Burkitt lymphoma accounts for nearly all childhood NHL and over half of all childhood cancers. In African children this lymphoma usually develops in the jaw or other facial bones.

Burkitt lymphomas in other parts of the world, including the United States, most often start in the abdomen (belly). Typically, a child will develop a large tumor in his or her abdomen that can sometimes block the bowels (intestines). This can cause belly pain, nausea, and vomiting. Burkitt lymphoma can also sometimes start in the neck or tonsils, or rarely in other parts of the body.

This lymphoma develops from B lymphocytes (B cells). It can spread to other organs, including the surface of the brain or inside the brain. It is one of the fastest growing cancers known, so it needs to be diagnosed and treated quickly.

Large cell lymphomas

These lymphomas start in more mature forms of T cells or B cells and can grow almost anywhere in the body. They are not as likely to spread to the bone marrow or brain, nor do they grow as quickly as other childhood lymphomas. These lymphomas tend to occur more often in older children and teens.

The 2 main subtypes of large cell lymphoma are:

Anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL): This lymphoma makes up about 10% of all NHL in children. It usually develops from mature T cells. It may start in lymph nodes in the neck or other areas, and may be found in the skin, lungs, bone, digestive tract, or other organs.

Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL): This lymphoma accounts for about 15% of childhood lymphomas. It starts in B cells, as the name implies. These lymphomas sometimes grow as large masses in the mediastinum (the space between the lungs), in which case they are referred to as primary mediastinal B-cell lymphomas. But they are also sometimes found in other areas such as lymph tissue in the neck or abdomen, or in the bones.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Kamdar KY, Sandlund JT, Bollard CM. Malignant lymphomas in childhood. In: Hoffman R, Benz EJ, Silberstein LE, Heslop HE, Weitz JI, Anastasi J, eds. Hematology: Basic Principles and Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier; 2013:1255−1266.

Rabin KR, Margolin JF, Kamdar KY, Poplack DG. Leukemias and lymphomas of childhood. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015:1500–1510.


Last Revised: January 27, 2016

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