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Blood disease: What is Lymphoma? (And how can we help?)

Apr 25, 2023 by Gift of Life News

What is lymphoma? 

Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the body’s germ-fighting network. The lymphatic system includes the lymph nodes, spleen, thymus gland, and bone marrow. Lymphoma can affect all those areas as well as other organs throughout the body. 

Many types of lymphoma exist, but the main subtypes are Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which spreads through the lymphatic system in an orderly manner from one group of lymph nodes to another, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which spreads across lymph nodes randomly. 

How does lymphoma impact one’s health? 

Lymphoma begins when a lymphocyte (white blood cells, including B cells, T cells and NK cells) develops a genetic mutation. The mutation tells the cell to multiply rapidly, causing many diseased lymphocytes that continue to multiply. 

The mutation also allows the cells to go on living when other normal cells would die. This causes diseased and ineffective lymphocytes to build up in the lymph nodes and causes the lymph nodes, spleen, and liver to swell and sometimes develop masses.

Symptoms of lymphoma include painless swelling of lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, and/or groin, persistent fatigue, fever, night sweats, shortness of breath, unexplained weight loss and itchy skin.

Patients can become susceptible to infections due to the disease interfering with the immune system. 

What causes lymphoma? 

Scientists do not fully understand all the causes of lymphoma, but research identified a series of risk factors that put people at a greater risk of lymphoma: 
•    HIV 
•    Human T-cell lymphotropic virus
•    Epstein–Barr virus infection
•    Exposure to high levels of ionizing radiation (i.e., X-rays, PET scans, radiation therapy)
•    Family history of lymphoma
•    Weakened immune system
•    Exposure to specific ingredients commonly found in herbicides and pesticides

How can a blood stem cell or marrow transplant cure lymphoma? 

Because lymphocytes are created in the bone marrow, one of the cures for lymphoma is peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) or bone marrow transplant, to eliminate the diseased bone marrow and replace it with a new, healthy system. This treatment is usually only done after other treatments have not worked. 

For the transplant to work, the donor and the patient must have matching immune system factors, called Human Leukocyte Antigens (HLA). People get their HLA types from their parents, one half from each parent. About 30% of patients find a match with a family member; the other 70% of patients must search the registry for a matching unrelated donor.

Prior to the transplant, the patient’s bone marrow is cleared by chemotherapy and radiation therapy, then the transplant is completed by an infusion. The healthy stem cells migrate into the bones and form new bone marrow that produces lymphocytes and other blood cells that are free of disease.

What you can do to help? 

Because lymphoma can be cured with a PBSC or bone marrow transplant, the best way to help is by joining the registry so more donors are available. Anyone 18 to 35 years old and in general good health can join the registry by completing a cheek swab kit at an in-person drive or by ordering a kit to be sent to your home. 

You can also organize and host your own donor recruitment events. Gift of Life has more than 30 years of experience recruiting new donors, and we stand ready to help you create a successful drive. Click here to get started.

You can also help by spreading the word and sharing our mission with others. Follow Gift of Life on social media and share this article and others like it.