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What is Hodgkin lymphoma?

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Hodgkin lymphoma is a type of cancer that affects your lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell).

There are two main types of lymphoma – Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Both types affect your lymphocytes. But in Hodgkin lymphoma, the cancerous lymphocytes are called Reed-Sternberg cells. If you have a lymph node biopsy and these cells are found in your sample, you will get a diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma.

Lymphocytes are part of your immune system and fight infections in your body. When you have Hodgkin lymphoma, some of your lymphocytes become cancerous and multiply in an abnormal way.

These cancerous lymphocytes cluster together in your glands (lymph nodes), attracting normal white blood cells and causing lumps to form. Usually, the lumps will be in your neck, but you can get them anywhere you have lymph nodes and also in some organs.

Because Hodgkin lymphoma affects your lymphocytes, it means your body is less able to fight off infections.

Lymphocytes and lymph nodes are part of your lymphatic system, so Hodgkin lymphoma is also called a cancer of the lymphatic system. We have more information about the lymphatic and immune systems. We also have information about the different types of blood cells.

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Find more videos and information for young adults, covering diagnosis, treatment, side effects, the mental impact, friends and work or study.

Help shape our work

We are working on some new information about Hodgkin lymphoma. If you have been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in the last five years please get in touch with Grace on [email protected] if you'd like to help shape the new information.

To make sure we reflect a diverse range of voices, we would particularly like to hear from young men diagnosed under the age of 30, people of any gender diagnosed over the age of 70, and people from a Black, Asian or ethnic minority background of any age or gender.

Types of Hodgkin lymphoma

There are two main types of Hodgkin lymphoma:

  • classical Hodgkin lymphoma
  • nodular lymphocyte-predominant Hodgkin lymphoma (NLPHL)

Classical Hodgkin lymphoma is the most common type of Hodgkin lymphoma. NLPHL accounts for 10% of Hodgkin lymphoma cases (one in ten cases). Make sure you check with your specialist which is the right information for you.

Lymphoma Action has information about nodular lymphocyte-predominant Hodgkin lymphoma (NLPHL).

What causes Hodgkin lymphoma?

Hodgkin lymphoma is quite rare, but there are still around 2,000 people diagnosed with it each year in the UK, which is about three people in 100,000. It’s important to understand that you can’t catch lymphoma, or pass it on to someone else.

Risks of developing Hodgkin lymphoma

In most cases we don’t know what causes Hodgkin lymphoma, but there are some things which can make the risk of developing the disease slightly higher.

Children and adults of all ages can develop Hodgkin lymphoma, but it is most common in young adults and people over 75.

In the UK, Hodgkin lymphoma is slightly more common in men than in women – we don’t know why.

You’re more likely to get Hodgkin lymphoma if you have problems with your immune system because of another health condition (e.g. HIV or rheumatoid arthritis), or because you’ve had an organ transplant and are taking drugs to stop the new organ being rejected.

This is the virus that causes glandular fever, and people who’ve been exposed to it may have a slightly higher risk of getting Hodgkin lymphoma. But as Hodgkin lymphoma is rare, your risk of getting it is very low even if you’ve had glandular fever.

Hodgkin lymphoma isn’t a hereditary disease (one that runs in families), though there’s some evidence that having a parent, child, brother or sister with Hodgkin lymphoma or another blood cancer can slightly increase your risk. We don’t know if this is because of a genetic fault or because members of the same family are more likely to have the same type of lifestyle.

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