Tests for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

Most people with non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) see their doctor because they have felt a lump that hasn’t gone away, they develop some of the other symptoms of NHL, or they just don’t feel well and go in for a check-up.

If you have signs or symptoms that suggest you might have lymphoma, exams and tests will be done to find out for sure and, if so, to determine the exact type of lymphoma.

Medical history and physical exam

Your doctor will want to get a thorough medical history, including information about your symptoms, possible risk factors, and other medical conditions. 

Next, the doctor will examine you, paying special attention to the lymph nodes and other areas of the body that might be affected, including the spleen and liver. Because infections are the most common cause of enlarged lymph nodes, the doctor will look for an infection in the part of the body near the swollen lymph nodes. 

The doctor also might order blood tests to look for signs of infection or other problems. If the doctor suspects that lymphoma might be causing your symptoms, he or she might recommend a biopsy of a swollen lymph node or other affected area.

Biopsy

Many symptoms of NHL can also be caused by other problems, like an infection, or by other kinds of cancer. 

For example, enlarged lymph nodes are more often caused by infections than by lymphoma. Because of this, doctors often prescribe antibiotics and wait a few weeks to see if the nodes shrink. If the nodes stay the same or continue to grow, the doctor might order a biopsy. Either a small piece of a node or, more commonly, the entire node is removed for viewing under the microscope and for other lab tests.

A biopsy might be needed right away if the size, texture, or location of a lymph node or the presence of other symptoms strongly suggests lymphoma.

Biopsies to diagnose non-Hodgkin lymphoma

A biopsy is the only way to confirm a person has NHL. There are several types of biopsies. Doctors choose which one to use based on each person’s situation.

Excisional or incisional biopsy: This is the preferred and most common type of biopsy if lymphoma is suspected. In this procedure, a surgeon cuts through the skin to remove the lymph node. 

  • If the doctor removes the entire lymph node, it is called an excisional biopsy. 
  • If a small part of a larger tumor or node is removed, it is called an incisional biopsy. 

If the enlarged node is just under the skin, this is a fairly simple operation that can often be done with local anesthesia (numbing medicine). But if the node is inside the chest or abdomen, the patient will be sedated or given general anesthesia (drugs are used to put the patient into a deep sleep). This method almost always provides enough of a sample to diagnose the exact type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Needle biopsy: Needle biopsies are less invasive than excisional or incisional biopsies, but the drawback is that they might not remove enough of a sample to diagnose Hodgkin lymphoma (or to determine which type it is). There are 2 main types of needle biopsies:

  • In a fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy, the doctor uses a very thin, hollow needle attached to a syringe to withdraw (aspirate) a small amount of tissue from an enlarged lymph node or a tumor mass. 
  • For a core needle biopsy, the doctor uses a larger needle to remove a slightly larger piece of tissue.

To biopsy an enlarged node just under the skin, the doctor can aim the needle while feeling the node. If the node or tumor is deep inside the body, the doctor can guide the needle using a computed tomography (CT) scan or ultrasound (see descriptions of imaging tests later in this section).

Most doctors do not use needle biopsies to diagnose lymphoma. But if the doctor suspects that your lymph node is enlarged because of an infection or by the spread of cancer from another organ (such as the breast, lungs, or thyroid), a needle biopsy may be the first type of biopsy done. An excisional biopsy might still be needed to diagnose and classify lymphoma, even after a needle biopsy has been done.

If lymphoma has already been diagnosed, needle biopsies are sometimes used to check abnormal areas in other parts of the body that might be from the lymphoma spreading or coming back after treatment.

Other types of biopsies

These procedures are not normally done to diagnose lymphoma, but they might be used to help determine the stage (extent) of a lymphoma that has already been diagnosed. 

Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy: These procedures are often done after lymphoma has been diagnosed to help determine if it has reached the bone marrow. The 2 tests are often done at the same time. The samples are usually taken from the back of the pelvic (hip) bone, although in some cases they may be taken from other bones.

For a bone marrow aspiration, you lie on a table (either on your side or on your belly). After cleaning the skin over the hip, the doctor numbs the area and the surface of the bone with local anesthetic, which can cause a brief stinging or burning sensation. A thin, hollow needle is then inserted into the bone and a syringe is used to suck out a small amount of liquid bone marrow. Even with the anesthetic, most patients still have some brief pain when the marrow is removed.

A bone marrow biopsy is usually done just after the aspiration. A small piece of bone and marrow is removed with a slightly larger needle that is pushed into the bone. The biopsy can also cause some brief pain.

Lumbar puncture (spinal tap): This test looks for lymphoma cells in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which is the liquid that bathes the brain and spinal cord. Most people with lymphoma will not need this test. But doctors may order it for certain types of lymphoma or if a person has symptoms that suggest the lymphoma may have reached the brain.

For this test, you may lie on your side or sit up. The doctor first numbs an area in the lower part of your back over the spine. A small, hollow needle is then placed between the bones of the spine to withdraw some of the fluid. 

Pleural or peritoneal fluid sampling: Lymphoma that has spread to the chest or abdomen can cause fluid to build up. Pleural fluid (inside the chest) or peritoneal fluid (inside the abdomen) can be removed by placing a hollow needle through the skin into the chest or abdomen.

  • When this procedure is used to remove fluid from the area around the lung, it’s called a thoracentesis. 
  • When it is used to collect fluid from inside the abdomen, it’s known as a paracentesis. 

The doctor uses a local anesthetic to numb the skin before inserting the needle. The fluid is then withdrawn and looked at under the microscope to check for lymphoma cells. 

Lab tests on biopsy samples

All biopsy samples and fluids are looked at under a microscope by a pathologist (a doctor specially trained to recognize cancer cells). The size and shape of the cells and how they are arranged may show not only if the person has a lymphoma, but also what type of lymphoma it is. But usually other types of lab tests are needed as well. 

Flow cytometry and immunohistochemistry: For both flow cytometry and immunohistochemistry, samples of cells are treated with antibodies that stick to certain proteins on cells. For imunohistochemistry, the cells are then looked at under a microscope to see if the antibodies stuck to them (meaning they have these proteins), For flow cytometry, a special machine is used to look for the antibodies.

These tests can help determine whether a lymph node is swollen because of lymphoma, some other cancer, or a non-cancerous disease. The tests can also be used for immunophenotyping – determining which type of lymphoma a person has, based on certain proteins in or on the cells. Different types of lymphocytes have different proteins on their surface, which correspond to the type of lymphocyte and how mature it is.

Chromosome tests: Normal human cells have 23 pairs of chromosomes (strands of DNA), each of which is a certain size and looks a certain way under the microscope. But in some types of lymphoma, the cells have changes in their chromosomes, such as having too many, too few, or abnormal chromosomes. These changes can often help identify the type of lymphoma.

  • Cytogenetics: In this lab test, the cells are looked at under a microscope to see if the chromosomes have any abnormalities. A drawback of this test is that it usually takes about 2 to 3 weeks because the cells must grow in lab dishes for a couple of weeks before their chromosomes are ready to be viewed under the microscope. 
  • Fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH): This test looks more closely at lymphoma cell DNA using special fluorescent dyes that only attach to specific genes or parts of chromosomes. FISH can find most chromosome changes that can be seen in standard cytogenetic tests, as well as some gene changes too small to be seen with cytogenetic testing. FISH is very accurate and can usually provide results within a couple of days, which is why this test is now used in many medical centers.
  • Polymerase chain reaction (PCR): PCR is a very sensitive DNA test that can find gene changes and certain chromosome changes too small to be seen with a microscope, even if very few lymphoma cells are present in a sample.

Imaging tests

Imaging tests use x-rays, sound waves, magnetic fields, or radioactive particles to produce pictures of the inside of the body. These tests might be done for a number of reasons, including:

  • To look for possible causes of certain symptoms (such as enlarged lymph nodes in the chest in someone having chest pain or trouble breathing)
  • To help determine the stage (extent) of the lymphoma
  • To help show if treatment is working
  • To look for possible signs of lymphoma coming back after treatment

Chest x-ray

The chest might be x-rayed to look for enlarged lymph nodes in this area.

Computed tomography (CT) scan

A CT scan combines many x-rays to make detailed, cross-sectional images of your body. This scan can help tell if any lymph nodes or organs in your body are enlarged. CT scans are useful for looking for lymphoma in the abdomen, pelvis, chest, head, and neck.

CT-guided needle biopsy: A CT can also be used to guide a biopsy needle into a suspicious area. For this procedure, you lie on the CT scanning table while the doctor moves a biopsy needle through the skin and toward the area. CT scans are repeated until the needle is in the right place. A biopsy sample is then removed to be looked at under a microscope.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan

Like CT scans, MRI scans show detailed images of soft tissues in the body. But MRI scans use radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays. This test is not used as often as CT scans for lymphoma, but if your doctor is concerned about spread to the spinal cord or brain, MRI is very useful for looking at these areas.

Ultrasound

Ultrasound uses sound waves and their echoes to create pictures of internal organs or masses. In the most common type of ultrasound, a small, microphone-like instrument called a transducer is placed on the skin (which is first lubricated with a gel). It gives off sound waves and picks up the echoes as they bounce off the organs. The echoes are converted by a computer into an image on a computer screen. 

Ultrasound can be used to look at lymph nodes near the surface of the body or to look inside your abdomen for enlarged lymph nodes or organs such as the liver and spleen. It can also detect kidneys that have become swollen because the outflow of urine has been blocked by enlarged lymph nodes. (It can’t be used to look at lymph nodes in the chest because the ribs block the sound waves.)

Positron emission tomography (PET) scan

For a PET scan, you are injected with a slightly radioactive form of sugar, which collects mainly in cancer cells. A special camera is then used to create a picture of areas of radioactivity in the body. The picture is not detailed like a CT or MRI scan, but it can provide helpful information about your whole body.

PET scans can be used for many reasons in a person with lymphoma:

  • They can help tell if an enlarged lymph node contains lymphoma. 
  • They can help spot small areas in the body that might be lymphoma, even if the area looks normal on a CT scan.
  • They can help tell if a lymphoma is responding to treatment. Some doctors will repeat the PET scan after 1 or 2 courses of chemotherapy. If the chemotherapy is working, the lymph nodes will no longer take up the radioactive sugar.
  • They can be used after treatment in helping decide whether an enlarged lymph node still contains lymphoma or is just scar tissue.

PET/CT scan: Some machines can do both a PET scan and a CT scan at the same time. This lets the doctor compare areas of higher radioactivity on the PET scan with the more detailed appearance of that area on the CT scan. PET/CT scans can often help pinpoint the areas of lymphoma better than a CT scan alone.

Bone scan

This test is not usually done unless a person is having bone pain or has lab test results that suggest the lymphoma may have reached the bones.

For bone scans, a radioactive substance called technetium is injected into a vein. It travels to damaged areas of bone, and a special camera can then detect the radioactivity. Lymphoma often causes bone damage, which may be picked up on a bone scan. But bone scans can’t show the difference between cancers and non-cancerous problems, such as arthritis and fractures, so further tests might be needed. 

Other tests

Blood tests

Blood tests measure the amounts of certain types of cells and chemicals in the blood. They are not used to diagnose lymphoma, but they can sometimes help determine how advanced the lymphoma is. 

  • A complete blood count (CBC) measures the levels of different cells in the blood. For a person already known to have lymphoma, low blood cell counts might mean that the lymphoma is growing in the bone marrow and affecting new blood cell formation. 
  • Blood chemistry tests are often done to look at kidney and liver function. 
  • If lymphoma has been diagnosed, the lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) level may be checked. LDH levels are often increased in patients with lymphomas. 
  • For some types of lymphoma or if certain treatments might be used, your doctor may also advise you to have tests to see if you’ve been infected with certain viruses, such as hepatitis B virus (HBV), hepatitis C virus (HCV), or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Infections with these viruses may affect your treatment.

Tests of heart and lung function

These tests are not used to diagnose lymphoma, but they might be done if you are going to get certain chemotherapy drugs commonly used to treat lymphoma that could affect the heart or the lungs. 

  • Your heart function may be checked with an echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart) or a MUGA scan.
  • Your lung function may be checked with pulmonary function tests, in which you breathe into a tube connected to a machine.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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National Cancer Institute. Physician Data Query (PDQ). Adult Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Treatment. 2016. Accessed at www.cancer.gov/types/lymphoma/hp/adult-nhl-treatment-pdq on May 15, 2016.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphomas. Version 3.2016. Accessed at www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/nhl.pdf on May 11, 2016.

Roschewski MJ, Wilson WH. Chapter 106: Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier; 2014.

Last Medical Review: May 31, 2016 Last Revised: May 31, 2016

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