What Is Lymphoma?

This week, actor Jeff Bridges announced that he was recently diagnosed with lymphoma and is undergoing treatment. While many people are familiar with lung, breast, and colorectal cancers, they may not know as much about lymphoma.

Andres Ferber, MD Hematologist

Lymphoma is a cancer that starts in cells called lymphocytes that are part of the body’s immune system. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell found in the lymph nodes, spleen, thymus, bone marrow, and almost every other organ of the body. We aren’t really sure what causes lymphoma, but it begins when a lymphocyte develops one or more genetic mutations. The mutations allow the cell to multiply without the normal controls, causing many abnormal lymphocytes that continue multiplying and accumulating causing the disease.

There are more than 70 different types of lymphoma. They range from slow growing to highly aggressive. Lymphomas are categorized into two broad groups: non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Hodgkin lymphoma.

Since there are many different types of lymphoma, we call them collectively lymphomas. Each type has different symptoms, treatments, and prognosis. Many lymphomas are curable through a relatively short course of treatment.


Each year approximately 100,000 people are diagnosed with some type of lymphoma. Unfortunately, about 20,000 people die of lymphoma every year. The good news is that many people survive for many years after their treatment and many are cured. There are about one million survivors of some form of lymphoma. People of all ages can have lymphoma, although it is more common in adults than in children.

Risk factors

Some factors that may increase the risk of lymphoma include:

  • Some types of lymphoma are more common in young adults, while others are more common in people over 55.
  • Being male. Males are slightly more likely to develop lymphoma.
  • An impaired immune system. Lymphoma is more common in people with immune system diseases or in people who take medications that suppress their immune system.
  • Certain infections. Some infections are associated with an increased risk of lymphoma, including Helicobacter pylori infection and the Epstein-Barr virus.
  • Some chemicals, such as those used to kill insects and weeds, may increase your risk of developing certain types of lymphoma.

Diagnosis and Treatment

MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper is one of the region’s leading centers for the care and treatment of patients with lymphomas and other hematologic cancers (cancers that begin in blood-forming tissue, such as the bone marrow, or in the cells of the immune system).

Because lymphomas are a diverse group of diseases and medically complex, it is essential for patients to have a multidisciplinary team of cancer experts by their side to determine an accurate diagnosis, develop an effective treatment plan, and monitor their response to treatment.

MD Anderson at Cooper’s multidisciplinary Hematologic Cancer Center team includes physicians from diverse specialties, including medical oncology, radiology, radiation oncology, pathology, genetics, and symptom management. The team meets weekly to discuss each individual case and determine personalized treatment plans for each patient.

At MD Anderson at Cooper, hematologists and medical oncologists, who specialize in caring for patients with blood cancers, generally lead the multidisciplinary team and determine the best treatment plan for each patient.

Determining an accurate diagnosis is the first step in developing the right treatment. Specially trained pathologists, geneticists, and molecular biologists are essential in helping identify the type of lymphoma a patient has. And, experienced radiologists are instrumental in ascertaining if the disease has spread to the body, and how the patient is responding to treatment.

Patients may require treatments such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and radiation therapy. In some situations, patients may need a bone marrow transplant or other cellular therapies.

Not all lymphomas are treated immediately after the diagnosis is made because some grow very slowly and do not cause problems. In these situations, we monitor the patient very carefully to determine if they need to begin treatment. Some lymphomas of the stomach are caused by bacteria and are treated and cured with antibiotics.


Because a large number of people with lymphoma survive for many years and many are cured, it is essential that the therapies are effective in treating the disease, but do not cause harmful, unwanted effects in the short-term and, in particular, in the long-term. Medical oncologists monitor patients closely after treatment is complete to detect complications that may arise due to the disease or the treatment as early as possible.

While lymphomas are very serious forms of cancer, blood cancer survival rates have been increasing over time, as blood cancer treatment has evolved rapidly over the last decade.

Andres Ferber, MD is a Hematologist with MD  Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper. To learn more about lymphoma, including symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment, please visit our website.

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