Palliative and Supportive Care for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

For most people with non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), treatment of the lymphoma itself is the main concern. But patients can also often benefit from care aimed at helping with problems related to the NHL and its treatment. For example, some people with NHL have problems with infections or low blood counts. Although treating the NHL may help these problems over time, other therapies may be needed as well. 

Treatments to prevent infections

Antibiotics and anti-virals

Patients getting certain chemotherapy drugs (such as fludarabine and other purine analogs) and the antibody drug alemtuzumab (Campath) have a high risk of infections seen mainly in people with impaired immune systems, like infection with CMV (a virus) and Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP, which is caused by a type of fungus). An anti-viral drug like acyclovir is often given to try to prevent CMV infections. To help prevent PCP, a sulfa antibiotic is often given (trimethoprim with sulfamethoxazole, which is also known by brand names such as Septra and Bactrim). Other treatments are available for people who are allergic to sulfa drugs.

Antibiotics and anti-viral drugs are also given to treat infections. Often, active infections require higher doses or different drugs than those used to prevent infections.

Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG)

Some people with NHL have low levels of antibodies (immunoglobulins) to fight infections. This can lead to lung and/or sinus infections that keep coming back. The level of antibodies in the blood can be checked with a blood test, and if it is low, antibodies from donors can be given into a vein (IV) to help prevent infections. This is called intravenous immunoglobulin or IVIG. IVIG is often given once a month at first, but may be able to be given less often based on blood tests of antibody levels.

For more information on infections, see Infections in People With Cancer.

Treatments for low blood counts

Low white blood cell count: White blood cells, especially a certain kind of white blood cell called neutrophils, are needed to fight infection. Having too few neutrophils (neutropenia) can lead to serious or even life threatening infections. If you become neutropenic from chemotherapy (chemo), you may be treated with injections of a white blood cell growth factor, such as filgrastim (Neupogen) or pegfilgrastim (Neulasta), to boost your neutrophil count. This lowers the risk of serious infections and can allow chemo to continue on time. If you are neutropenic and have signs or symptoms of infection (like a fever), you will be treated with antibiotics.

Low platelet count: Platelets help blood to clot, which stops bleeding. If platelet counts get very low, it can lead to serious bleeding. Transfusions of platelets can often help prevent this.

In NHL, low platelet counts can also be caused by the cells being destroyed by abnormal antibodies. This is called immune thrombocytopenia. Before diagnosing this, the doctor often needs to check the bone marrow to make sure that there isn’t another cause for the low platelet counts. In immune thrombocytopenia, giving platelet transfusions doesn’t usually help because the antibodies just destroy the new platelets, too. This can be treated by drugs that affect the immune system, like corticosteroids and IVIG. Another option is to remove the spleen, since after the antibodies stick to the platelets, they are actually destroyed in the spleen. A third option is treatment with a drug that tells the body to make more platelets, like eltrombopag (Promacta) or romiplostim (Nplate).

Low red blood cell count: Some people develop low red blood cell counts (anemia) from NHL or its treatment. This can lead to feeling tired, lightheaded, or short of breath. Anemia that is causing symptoms can be treated with red blood cell transfusions. Drugs that boost red blood cell production can also be used, but these are linked to worse outcomes, and so are generally only used for people who refuse to have transfusions.

In NHL, abnormal antibodies can also lower red blood cell counts. This is called autoimmune hemolytic anemia (AIHA). It can be treated with drugs that affect the immune system, like corticosteroids and IVIG. Removing the spleen is also an option. If the patient is being treated with the chemo drug fludarabine (Fludara) when the AIHA develops, the drug may be the cause, and so the fludarabine will be stopped.  

Palliative care

Whether your lymphoma is being treated or not, it’s important to have treatment to relieve your symptoms. This type of treatment, sometimes called palliative care, can be given along with cancer treatment as well as if cancer treatment is no longer working.

Sometimes, the treatments you get to control your symptoms are similar to the treatments used to treat cancer. For example, when lymph nodes become enlarged, they may press on nerves and cause pain. Radiation therapy to these areas may help relieve the pain. You might also be given pain medicines, ranging from ibuprofen and similar drugs to more potent medicines such as opioids (like morphine).

Nausea and loss of appetite can be treated with drugs and high-calorie food supplements. If the lymphoma has spread to the lungs, you may get short of breath. Oxygen may be used to help treat this.

It’s important that you tell your health care team about any symptoms you have, including any side effects from treatment. There are often ways to help control or lessen these symptoms. This is an important part of your overall treatment plan.

For more information on palliative care and getting help with side effects, see the Palliative or Supportive Care section of our website.

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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