Over the past two decades, there have been notable breakthroughs in the treatment of lymphoma, a group of blood cancers that affect the lymphatic system.
Lymphoma is serious but treatable, and, in many cases, it can be curable. The development of immunotherapies and targeted approaches have significantly improved survival rates and quality of life for patients.
Lymphoma is a result of gene mutations that happen in your lymphocytes - a type of white blood cell found in lymph nodes, the thymus, bone marrow, and other organs of the body. Normal lymphocytes travel through the blood and lymphatic system and give the body immunity from invading bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Cancerous lymphocytes reproduce rapidly and uncontrollably, forming tumors. Once in the lymph nodes, the cancerous lymphocytes can escape into the blood stream and invade vital organs.
Lymphomas: Hodgkin or Non-Hodgkin?
Lymphomas generally fall into two broad categories: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Hodgkin lymphoma – once called Hodgkin’s disease – is named for the physician who first described it. Hodgkin lymphoma is highly treatable and one of the most curable cancers.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) is more common, and there are more than 60 sub-types of the disease. NHL can be slow-growing, or fast-growing and aggressive. Depending on its sub-type and aggressiveness, there are many treatment options available.
Symptoms to Watch
Symptoms are similar for both Hodgkin lymphoma and NHL:
- swelling or heaviness of the lymph nodes in the underarm, neck or groin
- unexplained weight loss
- shortness of breath
- easy bruising
- night sweats
No clear screenings exist for lymphoma. In order to diagnose the disease, doctors usually start with a prescription for blood tests. If the patient has abnormal blood test results, radiologic imaging tests and/or biopsies may follow.
Current treatments for both Hodgkin lymphoma and NHL do not cause as many side effects as those that were commonly used in the past. Treatment protocols depend on the stage, type, and location of the lymphoma tumors as well as the overall health and age of the patient.
Slow-growing NHL might need only active surveillance, where the condition is monitored but treatment is delayed until there are symptoms that interfere with daily life.
Many people who are treated for either Hodgkin lymphoma or NHL receive a combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy and/or other targeted therapies. Radiation therapy may be used if the tumor is localized to one area of the body. In rare cases, a stem cell transplant may be necessary.
Ramping Up the Immune System
Targeted therapies, considered precision medicine, home in on the specific cells to be treated and may have fewer harmful effects than full body systemic chemotherapy. Targeted therapies often come in pill form and attack specific signaling pathways within the cancerous cells, preventing them from increasing.
Immunotherapies, most often seen in the form of monoclonal antibodies, harness the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer. These therapies are usually administered through an injection or as an intravenous infusion. Immunotherapy has made a huge difference in the treatment of lymphoma and generally is tolerated well by most patients.
Immune checkpoint inhibitors manipulate the “gas pedals” and “brakes” of the immune system so that it can be unleashed against the cancer without harming normal cells in the body.
Chimeric antigen reception (CAR) T-cell therapy is a relatively new type of immunotherapy that engineers a patient’s own immune cells to recognize and attack cancerous tumor cells.
Holy Name’s Institute for Clinical Research is expanding its portfolio of therapies to include new treatments for lymphoma.
Check with Your Physician
If you are experiencing any signs or symptoms of lymphoma, consider making an appointment with a Holy Name Medical Partner, within our physician network, at HolyNameMedicalParners.org. You may be referred to a hematologist-oncologist for further evaluation and testing.
Vikram Premkumar, MD, MS, is director of hematologic oncology at the Patricia Lynch Cancer Center at Holy Name, who has participated in clinical and translational research and brings a wealth of knowledge and skill to treating patients with blood diseases and cancers. In addition to his clinical skills, Dr. Premkumar has received grant support for his research in blood cancers from the Conquer Cancer Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
To make an appointment: 201-227-8008 or HolyName.org/Premkumar.