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Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) is usually found when a child or teen is brought to a doctor because of signs or symptoms they are having. This might lead the doctor to suspect lymphoma, but tests will be needed to confirm it.
The exams and tests below might be done to diagnose lymphoma, to find out what type it is, and to learn how advanced it is.
The doctor will ask about any symptoms, including how long they have been present, and might also ask about possible risk factors, such as immune system problems.
The physical exam will probably focus on any enlarged lymph nodes or other areas of concern. For example, the abdomen (belly) may be felt to see if the spleen or liver is enlarged.
The most common cause of enlarged lymph nodes in children is an infection, so this is often what doctors think of first. Because of this, the diagnosis of NHL in a child can sometimes be delayed. Children with swollen lymph nodes might be watched closely for a time or given a course of antibiotics first to see if the nodes will shrink. If they don't, more tests will be done, such as a biopsy to remove part or all of a swollen node (see next section). But if the lymph nodes seem to be growing quickly or the child’s health seems to be getting worse, a biopsy may be needed right away.
Lymphoma can't be diagnosed in a child based only on symptoms or a physical exam. Most of the symptoms NHL can cause are more often caused by other problems, like infections. They may also be caused by other kinds of cancers. And if a child does have NHL, it’s important to know which type it is, because some types are treated differently.
The only way to be sure of the diagnosis is to remove some or all of an abnormal lymph node (or tumor) to look at it with a microscope and do other lab tests. This is called a biopsy.
There are different types of biopsies. Doctors choose which one to use based on the situation. The goal is to get a sample large enough to make an accurate diagnosis as quickly as possible, with as few side effects as possible.
Surgical (open) biopsy: In this procedure, either an entire lymph node (an excisional biopsy) or a small part of a large tumor (an incisional biopsy) is removed through a cut in the skin.
If it can be done, this type of biopsy is usually preferred when lymphoma is suspected, as it almost always provides enough of a sample to diagnose the exact type of NHL.
If the area to be biopsied is a lymph node near the skin surface, this might be done with either local anesthesia (numbing medicine at the biopsy site) and sedation, or with general anesthesia (where the child is in a deep sleep). If the node (or tumor) is inside the chest or abdomen, general anesthesia typically is needed.
Needle biopsy: These biopsies use hollow needles to remove small pieces of tissue. There are 2 main types:
If an enlarged lymph node is just below the skin, the doctor can aim the needle while feeling the node. If the enlarged node or tumor is deep in the body (such as in the chest or abdomen), the doctor can guide the needle while watching it on an imaging test such as a CT scan or ultrasound (described later in this section).
The main advantage of a needle biopsy is that it does not require surgery. This can be especially important for children with tumors in the chest, because general anesthesia (where the child is in a deep sleep) can sometimes be dangerous for these children. A needle biopsy can also be useful when the lymphoma is in a place other than the lymph nodes, such as the bones.
In children, needle biopsies can often be done using local anesthesia to numb the area, along with sedation to make the child sleepy. General anesthesia is needed less often.
The main drawback of needle biopsies (especially FNA) is that sometimes the needle might not remove enough to make a definite diagnosis. Most doctors don’t use needle biopsies if they strongly suspect lymphoma (unless other types of biopsies can’t be done for some reason). But if the doctor suspects that lymph node swelling is caused by an infection (even after antibiotics), a needle biopsy may be the first type of biopsy done. Even after a needle biopsy has been done, a surgical biopsy might still be needed to diagnose and classify the lymphoma.
After lymphoma has been diagnosed, needle biopsies are sometimes used to check areas in other parts of the body where lymphoma might be spreading or coming back after treatment.
Other types of biopsies are not normally used to diagnose lymphoma, but they might be done if a lymphoma has already been diagnosed to help show how far it has spread.
These tests can show if a lymphoma has reached the bone marrow. The 2 tests are usually done at the same time. Biopsy samples are usually taken from the back of the pelvic (hip) bones, although sometimes they may be taken from the front of the hip bones or from other bones.
For a bone marrow aspiration, the skin over the hip and the surface of the bone is numbed with local anesthetic. In most cases, children will be given other medicines to make them drowsy or asleep during the biopsy. 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.
A bone marrow biopsy is usually done just after the aspiration. A small piece of bone and some marrow is removed with a slightly larger needle that is put into the bone. After the biopsy is done, pressure will be put on the site to help stop any bleeding.
This test is used to look for lymphoma cells in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which is the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.
For this test, an area in the lower part of the back near the spine is numbed. Usually the child also is given medicine to make them sleep during the procedure. A small, hollow needle is then placed between the bones of the spine to withdraw some of the fluid.
If a child has already been diagnosed with lymphoma, a lumbar puncture can also be used to put chemotherapy drugs into the CSF to try to prevent or treat the spread of lymphoma to the spinal cord and brain.
Lymphoma that has spread to the thin membranes that line the inside of the chest and abdomen can cause fluid to build up. Pleural fluid (inside the chest) or peritoneal fluid (inside the belly) can be removed by putting a hollow needle through the skin into the chest or abdomen.
Before the procedure, the doctor uses a local anesthetic to numb the skin and may give the child other medicines so they are drowsy or asleep during the procedure. The fluid is then drawn out and checked for lymphoma cells.
All biopsy samples and fluids are looked at by a pathologist (a doctor specially trained in using lab tests to identify cancer cells). The doctor uses a microscope to look at the size and shape of the cells and how they are arranged. This can show if a child has lymphoma, and sometimes what type of lymphoma it is. But usually other types of lab tests will be needed as well.
For flow cytometry and immunohistochemistry tests, samples of cells are treated with antibodies (proteins that stick only to certain other proteins on cells). For immunohistochemistry, the cells are then looked at with a microscope to see if the antibodies stuck to them (meaning they have these proteins), while flow cytometry uses a special machine to look at them.
These tests can help determine if 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 child has, based on certain proteins in or on the cells). Different types of lymphocytes (the cells from which lymphomas start) have different proteins on their surface, which relate to the type of lymphocyte and how mature it is.
These tests evaluate the chromosomes (long strands of DNA) in the lymphoma cells. In some types of lymphoma, the cells have chromosome changes such as having too many, too few, or other abnormalities. These changes can often help identify the type of lymphoma.
Cytogenetics: In this 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 lymphoma cells must grow in lab dishes before their chromosomes are ready to be seen with a microscope.
Fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH): This test looks more closely at lymphoma cell DNA using fluorescent dyes that only attach to specific gene or chromosome changes. FISH can find most chromosome changes (such as translocations) that can be seen under a microscope on standard cytogenetic tests, as well as some changes too small to be seen with usual cytogenetic testing. FISH is very accurate and results are usually ready within a couple of days.
Polymerase chain reaction (PCR): This is a very sensitive DNA test that can also find some chromosome changes too small to be seen with a microscope, even if there are very few lymphoma cells in a sample.
For more information, see Testing Biopsy and Cytology Specimens for Cancer.
Blood tests measure the amounts of certain types of cells and chemicals in the blood. They are not used to diagnose lymphoma, but they might be one of the first types of tests done in children with symptoms to help determine what is going on. If a child has been diagnosed with lymphoma, these tests can also sometimes help show how advanced the lymphoma is.
Imaging tests use x-rays, sound waves, magnetic fields, or radioactive substances to create pictures of the inside of the body. These tests might be done for a number of reasons, including:
A child with a known or suspected lymphoma might need one or more of these tests.
A chest x-ray may be done to look for enlarged lymph nodes inside the chest. But this test isn’t likely to be needed if a CT scan of the chest is done.
A CT scan combines many x-rays to make detailed, cross-sectional images of the body. CT scans are often used to look for enlarged lymph nodes or other masses in the neck, chest, abdomen, and pelvis.
During the test, your child will need to lie still on a table that slides in and out of the ring-shaped scanner. Some younger children may be given medicine to help keep them calm or even asleep during the test to help make sure the pictures come out well.
CT-guided needle biopsy: A CT scan can also be used to guide a biopsy needle precisely into a suspected tumor or enlarged lymph node. For this procedure, the child remains asleep on the CT scanning table, while the doctor advances a biopsy needle through the skin and toward the area. CT scans are repeated until the needle is in the right place. The biopsy sample is then removed and looked at in the lab.
Ultrasound uses sound waves and their echoes to create pictures of internal organs or masses.
Ultrasound can be used to look at lymph nodes near the surface of the body or to look inside the abdomen (belly) for enlarged lymph nodes or organs such as the liver or spleen. It can also show if the kidneys have become swollen if the outflow of urine has been blocked by enlarged lymph nodes.
Ultrasound-guided needle biopsy: Ultrasound is also sometimes used to help guide a biopsy needle into an enlarged lymph node.
An MRI, like a CT scan, shows detailed images of soft tissues in the body. But MRI scans use radio waves and strong magnets to make pictures, instead of x-rays.
This test is not used as often as CT scans for lymphoma, but MRI is very useful for looking at the brain and spinal cord if a child has symptoms that might be caused by problems in the nervous system.
MRIs take longer than CT scans, often up to an hour. Your child may have to lie inside a narrow tube, which can be distressing, so sedation is sometimes needed. Newer, more open MRI machines may be another option, although your child will still have to lie still.
For a PET scan, a slightly radioactive sugar is injected into the blood. (The amount of radioactivity used is very low and will pass out of the body within a day or so.) Because lymphoma cells grow quickly, they absorb more of the sugar. After about an hour, your child will be moved onto a table in the PET scanner. They will lie on the table for about 30 minutes while a special camera creates a picture of areas of radioactivity in the body. Younger children may be given medicine to help keep them calm or even asleep during the test.
The picture from a PET scan is not detailed like a CT or MRI scan, but it provides helpful information about the whole body.
PET scans can be used for many reasons in a child with lymphoma:
PET/CT or PET/MRI scan: Some newer machines can do a PET as well as a CT or MRI 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 or MRI scan.
A bone scan is not usually needed unless a child has bone pain or has lab test results that suggest the lymphoma might have reached the bones.
For this test, a radioactive substance called technetium is injected into the blood. (The amount of radioactivity used is very low and will pass out of the body within a day or so. Technetium travels to damaged areas of the bone over a couple of hours. Your child then lies on a table while a special camera detects the radioactivity and creates a picture of the skeleton. Younger children may be given medicine to help keep them calm or even asleep during the test.
A bone scan can detect bone damage from lymphoma. But it may also show other things that are not cancer, so other tests might be needed to be sure.
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Last Revised: August 10, 2021
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