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Lymphoma Overview
Symptoms & Causes
Lymphoma Diagnosis
Lymphoma Treatment
Treatment Options
Treatment by Stage
Other Considerations
Alternative Medicine


Lymphoma Treatment Options

Depening on your personal diagnosis, your doctor will form a treatment plan best suited to you. Treatment options/strategies can generally be classified as follows.

  • Watchful Waiting
  • Chemotherapy
  • Biological Therapy
  • Radiation Therapy
  • Stem Cell Transplantation

If you have indolent non-Hodgkin's lymphoma without symptoms, you may not need treatment for the cancer right away. The doctor watches your health closely so that treatment can start when you begin to have symptoms. Not getting cancer treatment right away is called watchful waiting.

If you have indolent lymphoma with symptoms, you will probably receive chemotherapy and biological therapy. Radiation therapy may be used for patients with Stage I or Stage II lymphoma.

If you have aggressive lymphoma, the treatment is usually chemotherapy and biological therapy. Radiation therapy also may be used.

If non-Hodgkin's lymphoma comes back after treatment, doctors call this a relapse or recurrence. People whose lymphoma comes back after treatment may receive stem cell transplantation.

Because cancer treatments often harm healthy cells and tissues, side effects are common. Side effects depend mainly on the type and extent of the treatment. Side effects may not be the same for each person, and they may change from one treatment session to the next. The younger a person is, the easier it may be to cope with treatment and its side effects.Before treatment starts, the health care team will explain possible side effects and suggest ways to help you manage them.

At any stage of the disease, you can have treatments to control pain, fatigue, eating problems, and other symptoms, to relieve the side effects of therapy, and to ease emotional and practical problems. You may also want to talk to your doctor about taking part in a clinical trial, a research study of new treatment methods.

Watchful Waiting

People who choose watchful waiting put off having cancer treatment until they have symptoms. Doctors sometimes suggest watchful waiting for a patient with indolent lymphoma. A person with indolent lymphoma may not have problems that require cancer treatment for a long time. Sometimes the tumor may even shrink for a while without therapy. By putting off treatment, a patient can avoid the side effects of chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

If you and your doctor agree that watchful waiting is a good idea, the doctor will check you regularly (every 3 months). You will receive treatment if symptoms occur or get worse.

Some people do not choose watchful waiting because they don't want to worry about having cancer that is not treated. Those who choose watchful waiting but later become worried should discuss their feelings with the doctor.


Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. It is called systemic therapy because the drugs travel through the bloodstream. The drugs can reach cancer cells in almost all parts of the body.

You may receive chemotherapy by mouth, through a vein, or in the space around the spinal cord. Treatment is usually in an outpatient part of the hospital, at the doctor's office, or at home. Some patients need to stay in the hospital during treatment.

If a patient has lymphoma in the stomach caused by H. pylori infection, the doctor may treat this lymphoma with antibiotics. After the drug cures the infection, the cancer also may go away.

The side effects of chemotherapy depend mainly on the specific drugs and the dose. The drugs affect cancer cells and other cells that divide rapidly:

Blood cells: When drugs affect your healthy blood cells, you are more likely to get infections, bruise or bleed easily, and feel very weak and tired.

Cells in hair roots: Chemotherapy can cause you to lose your hair. Your hair will grow back, but sometimes the new hair is somewhat different in color and texture.

Cells that line the mouth, stomach, and other parts of the digestive tract: Chemotherapy can cause poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, trouble swallowing, or mouth and lip sores.

The drugs used for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma also may cause skin rashes or blisters, and headaches or other aches. Your skin may become darker. Your nails may develop ridges or dark bands.

Your doctor can suggest ways to control many of these side effects.

You may want to ask the doctor these questions before starting chemotherapy:

  • Which drug or drugs will I have?
  • How do the drugs work?
  • What are the expected benefits of the treatment?
  • What are the risks and possible side effects of treatment? What can we do about them?
  • Are there any long-term effects from the drugs?
  • When will treatment start? When will it end?
  • How will treatment affect my normal activities?

More detailed information about chemotherapy is available in the next section.

Biological Therapy

People with certain types of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma may have biological therapy. This type of treatment helps the immune system fight cancer.

Monoclonal antibodies are the type of biological therapy used for lymphoma. They are proteins made in the lab that can bind to cancer cells. They help the immune system kill lymphoma cells. Patients receive this treatment through a vein at the doctor's office, clinic, or hospital.

Flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, headache, weakness, and nausea may occur. Most side effects are easy to treat. Rarely, a patient may have more serious side effects, such as breathing problems, low blood pressure, or severe skin rashes. Your doctor or nurse can tell you about the side effects that you can expect and how to manage them.

You may want to ask the doctor these questions before having biological therapy:

  • What will the treatment do?
  • Will I have to stay in the hospital?
  • How will we know if the treatment is working?
  • How long will I be on biological therapy?
  • Will I have side effects during treatment? How long will they last? What can we do about them?

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill non-Hodgkin's lymphoma cells. It can shrink tumors and help control pain.

Two types of radiation therapy are used for people with lymphoma:

External radiation: A large machine aims the rays at the part of the body where lymphoma cells have collected. This is local therapy because it affects cells in the treated area only. Most people go to a hospital or clinic for treatment 5 days a week for several weeks.

Systemic radiation: Some people with lymphoma receive an injection of radioactive material that travels throughout the body. The radioactive material is bound to antibodies that seek out lymphoma cells. The radiation destroys the lymphoma cells.

The side effects of radiation therapy depend mainly on the type of radiation therapy, the dose of radiation, and the part of the body that is treated. For example, external radiation to your abdomen can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Radiation to the lung can cause coughing or shortness of breath. In addition, your skin in the treated area may become red, dry, and tender. You also may lose your hair in the treated area.

You are likely to become very tired during external radiation therapy, especially in the later weeks of treatment. Resting is important, but doctors usually advise patients to try to stay as active as they can.

People who get systemic radiation also may feel very tired. They may be more likely to get infections.

If you have radiation therapy and chemotherapy at the same time, your side effects may be worse. The side effects can be distressing. You can talk with your doctor about ways to relieve them.

You may want to ask the doctor these questions before starting radiation therapy:

  • Why do I need this treatment?
  • What are the expected benefits of radiation therapy?
  • What are the risks and side effects of this treatment? What can we do about them?
  • Are there any long-term effects?
  • When will the treatments begin? When will they end?
  • How will I feel during therapy?
  • How will treatment affect my normal activities?

More detailed information about radiation therapy can be found in the next section.

Stem Cell Transplantation

A person with lymphoma who has relapsed may receive stem cell transplantation. A transplant of blood-forming stem cells allows a person to receive high doses of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or both. The high doses destroy both lymphoma cells and healthy blood cells in the bone marrow. Later, the patient receives healthy blood-forming stem cells through a flexible tube placed in a large vein in the neck or chest area. New blood cells develop from the transplanted stem cells.

Stem cell transplants take place in the hospital. The stem cells may come from the patient or from a donor:

Autologous stem cell transplantation: This type of transplant uses the patient's own stem cells. The stem cells are removed from the patient, and the cells may be treated to kill lymphoma cells that may be present. The stem cells are frozen and stored. After the patient receives high-dose treatment, the stored stem cells are thawed and returned to the patient.

Allogeneic stem cell transplantation: Sometimes healthy stem cells from a donor are available. The patient's brother, sister, or parent may be the donor. Or the stem cells may come from an unrelated donor. Doctors use blood tests to be sure the donor's cells match the patient's cells.

Syngeneic stem cell transplantation: This type of transplant uses stem cells from the patient's healthy identical twin.

Supportive Care

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and its treatment can lead to other health problems. You may receive supportive care to prevent or control these problems and to improve your comfort and quality of life during treatment.

You may receive antibiotics and other drugs to help protect you from infections. Your health care team may advise you to stay away from crowds and from people with colds and other contagious diseases. If an infection develops, it can be serious, and you will need treatment right away.

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and its treatment also can lead to anemia, which may make you feel very tired. Drugs or blood transfusions can help with this problem.

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This information is not a substitute for your doctor's medical advice,