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Overview of Lymphoma

By Carol S. Portlock, MD, Professor of Clinical Medicine, Weill Cornell University Medical College; Attending Physician, Lymphoma Service, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

Lymphomas are cancers of lymphocytes, which reside in the lymphatic system and in blood-forming organs.

Lymphomas are cancers of a specific type of white blood cells known as lymphocytes. These cells help fight infections. Lymphomas can develop from either B or T lymphocytes. T lymphocytes are important in regulating the immune system and in fighting viral infections. B lymphocytes produce antibodies.

Lymphocytes move about to all parts of the body through the bloodstream and through a network of tubular channels called lymphatic vessels (see Figure: Lymphatic System: Helping Defend Against Infection). Scattered throughout the network of lymphatic vessels are lymph nodes, which house collections of lymphocytes. Lymphocytes that become cancerous (lymphoma cells) may remain confined to a single lymph node or may spread to the bone marrow, the spleen, or virtually any other organ.

The two major types of lymphoma are

  • Hodgkin lymphoma (previously known as Hodgkin's disease)

  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Non-Hodgkin lymphomas are more common than Hodgkin lymphoma. Burkitt lymphoma and mycosis fungoides are subtypes of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

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