Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is in the news following the death of Andy Whitfield, the 39-year-old Welsh-born actor who starred in the hit TV series "Spartacus: Blood and Sand." The disease is a cancer of the lymphatic system. Lymph is a colorless, watery fluid that carries infection-fighting cells known as lymphocytes and which travels throughout the body via tiny tubes known as lymph vessels.
There are at least 61 types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, according to the Lymphoma Research Foundation. These are divided into two broad categories: B-cell lymphomas, which account for about 85 percent of all non-Hodgkin lymphomas, and T-cell lymphomas. The types differ in how they affect the body and how they are treated.
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How common is non-Hodgkin lymphoma?
Not long ago, non-Hodgkin lymphoma was a relatively rare cancer. Now it's the fifth-most common cancer in the U.S., according to the Lymphoma Research Foundation. Each year in the U.S., there are about 66,000 new cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and about 19,000 deaths from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.
What causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma?
Doctors don't know the precise cause but have identified several risk factors. A diet that is high in meat and dietary fat is one major risk factor, along with exposure to certain pesticides or herbicides or taking immunosuppressant drugs in the aftermath of an organ transplant. Other risk factors include having an autoimmune disease, such as psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, or Sjogren syndrome, or HIV/AIDS.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is more common in people over the age of 60. Men are at greater risk than women, and whites at greater risk than blacks, according to the American Cancer Society.
What are the warning signs?
Symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma include fever, night sweats, unexplained weight loss, and swollen lymph glands in the neck, underarm, groin, or stomach. Some people feel very tired and experience skin rashes and/or pain in the chest, abdomen, or bones.
How is the disease treated?
As with other forms of cancer, some combination of chemotherapy, radiation therapy and so-called targeted therapy - in which specially tailored drugs are used to attack specific cancer cells - are used. Some cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma are aggressive. Others are slow-growing, which makes it possible simply to watch and wait to see how they progress. Some indolent cases turn aggressive, and vice versa.
How survivable is non-Hodgkin lymphoma?
The most recent data suggest that about 69 percent of people of all races with non-Hodgkin lymphoma are still alive five years after diagnosis. That's up from about 31 percent of whites in the early 1960s. Children tend to fare better, with 84 percent of living for at least five years after diagnosis.