What If the Lymphoma Keeps Growing or Comes Back After Treatment?

Some lymphomas may not respond well to treatment. Most often, other types of treatment can then be tried. But as more treatments are tried, they may be less likely to work or more likely to cause side effects.

When a cancer comes back after treatment it is called recurrent or relapsed. In general, if a skin lymphoma comes back it tends to be in the skin. If this is the case, skin-directed therapies that haven’t been used yet may be effective.

Some skin lymphomas eventually spread inside the body as well. Often, lymph nodes are the first site of relapse. After that, it may spread to organs such as the liver, spleen, and bone marrow. Different types of systemic treatments may be helpful in this situation. Chemotherapy is often used, especially if the patient hasn’t had chemo before. Depending on the type of lymphoma, other drugs, such as vorinostat (Zolinza), romidepsin (Istodax), alemtuzumab (Campath), and denileukin diftitox (Ontak), might also be options for a relapse. A stem cell transplant may be another option at some point.

Advanced skin lymphomas are very hard to cure. Different systemic treatments may be effective for some time. But in general, the more treatments a person has had, the less likely it is that the next treatment will be helpful. If the lymphoma improves with later treatments, it often comes back sooner than it did before. Over time, treatments tend to provide less benefit, but they can still cause side effects.

One option might be to consider clinical trials of newer treatments that work in new ways. But at some point, a person might want to think about treatments aimed more at relieving the symptoms of the lymphoma, rather than trying to get rid of it with more aggressive treatments that have a very small chance of success. This approach is called palliative care.

For example, if lymph nodes enlarge, they can press on nerves and cause pain. Radiation therapy to these areas can often help relieve the pain. Treatment with appropriate pain medicines is also important. Help with pain treatment from a palliative care team may be required.

Some lymphoma symptoms can result from low blood counts. Fatigue may be caused by low red blood cell counts (anemia). Sometimes blood transfusions may be used to increase the number of red blood cells and help a person feel better. Low white blood cell counts (from chemotherapy or from the lymphoma itself) can lead to infections. Certain drugs such as G-CSF (Neupogen) or GM-CSF (Leukine) may be used to increase the white blood cell count.

Nausea and loss of appetite can occur because of the disease or its treatment. These symptoms can also be treated effectively with drugs, as well as high-calorie food supplements. If the lymphoma involves the lungs, patients may get short of breath. Oxygen may be used to help treat this symptom. See the Physical Side Effects section of our website for more information on side effects from cancer and cancer treatment.

Some people may become depressed. Counseling and medication may be helpful. If depression is a problem, it is important to discuss your feelings with your doctor or nurse, so that appropriate treatment can be started. See the Emotional Side Effects section of our website for information on coping with cancer.

For more on dealing with lymphoma that is no longer responding to treatment, see If Treatment of Lymphoma of the Skin Is No Longer Working.

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.

Last Medical Review: August 4, 2014 Last Revised: February 24, 2016

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