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Treating Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in Children

If your child or teen has been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), the treatment team will discuss the options with you. It’s important to weigh the benefits of each treatment option against the possible risks and side effects.

Common treatment approaches

Chemotherapy (sometimes along with other drugs) is the main treatment for children and teens with NHL, because it can reach all parts of the body and kill lymphoma cells wherever they may be. Even if the lymphoma appears to be limited to a single lymph node based on exams and tests, the lymphoma cells have often spread to other parts of the body by the time it is diagnosed.

Other types of treatment, such as surgery, might also be used in some situations. Sometimes high-dose chemotherapy followed by a stem cell transplant might be needed if the lymphoma comes back after treatment.

Who treats non-Hodgkin lymphoma in children?

Children and teens with NHL and their families have special needs. These needs can be met best by cancer centers for children and teens, working closely with the child’s primary care doctor. Being treated in these centers gives you the advantage of having teams of specialists who know the differences between cancers in adults and those in children and teens, as well as the unique needs of younger people with cancer.

For childhood lymphomas, this team is typically led by a pediatric oncologist, a doctor who uses chemotherapy and other medicines to treat children’s cancers. Many other specialists may be involved in your child’s care as well, including other doctors, physician assistants (PAs), nurse practitioners (NPs), nurses, psychologists, social workers, rehabilitation specialists, and other health professionals.

Making treatment decisions

Once lymphoma has been diagnosed and tests have been done to determine its stage, your child’s cancer care team will discuss treatment options with you. The most important factors in choosing a treatment include the type and stage of the lymphoma, although other factors, such as where the lymphoma is in the body, can also play a role.

Intensive treatment for childhood lymphoma is often very effective, but it might also cause serious side effects. It’s important to discuss all of your options as well as their possible side effects with your child’s doctors so you can make informed decisions.

If time allows, getting a second opinion from another doctor experienced with your child’s type of cancer is often a good idea. This can give you more information and help you feel more confident about the treatment plan you choose. If you aren’t sure where to go for a second opinion, ask your doctor for help.

Thinking about taking part in a clinical trial

Today, most children and teens with cancer are treated at specialized children’s cancer centers. These centers offer the most up-to-date-treatment by conducting clinical trials (studies of promising new therapies). Children’s cancer centers often conduct many clinical trials at any one time, and in fact most children treated at these centers take part in a clinical trial as part of their treatment.

Clinical trials are one way to get state-of-the art cancer treatment. Sometimes they may be the only way to get access to newer treatments (although there is no guarantee that newer treatments will be better). They are also the best way for doctors to learn better methods to treat these cancers. Still, they might not be right for everyone.

If you would like to learn more about clinical trials that might be right for your child, start by asking the treatment team if your clinic or hospital conducts clinical trials.

Considering complementary and alternative methods

You may hear about alternative or complementary methods that your doctor hasn’t mentioned to treat your child's tumor or relieve symptoms. These methods can include vitamins, herbs, and special diets, or other methods such as acupuncture or massage, to name a few.

Complementary methods refer to treatments that are used along with your regular medical care. Alternative treatments are used instead of standard medical treatment. Although some of these methods might be helpful in relieving symptoms or helping people feel better, many have not been proven to work. Some might even be harmful.

Be sure to talk to your child's cancer care team about any method you are thinking about using. They can help you learn what is known (or not known) about the method, which can help you make an informed decision. 

Preparing for treatment

Before treatment, the doctors and other members of the team will help you, as a parent, understand the tests that will need to be done. The team’s social worker will also counsel you about the problems you and your child might have during and after treatments such as surgery, and might be able to help you find housing and financial aid if needed.

Help getting through cancer treatment

Your child's cancer care team will be your first source of information and support, but there are other resources for help when you need it. Hospital- or clinic-based support services can also be an important part of your care. These might include nursing or social work services, financial aid, nutritional advice, rehab, or spiritual help. For children and teens with cancer and their families, other specialists can be an important part of care as well. 

The American Cancer Society also has programs and services – including rides to treatment, lodging, and more – to help you get through treatment. Call our National Cancer Information Center at 1-800-227-2345 and speak with one of our trained specialists.

The treatment information given here is not official policy of the American Cancer Society and is not intended as medical advice to replace the expertise and judgment of your cancer care team. It is intended to help you and your family make informed decisions, together with your doctor. Your doctor may have reasons for suggesting a treatment plan different from these general treatment options. Don't hesitate to ask your cancer care team any questions you may have about your treatment options.