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Differences Between Hodgkin & Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

doctor inspects patient for lymphoma

With two similar-sounding names, Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma can easily be confused. They are both cancers that adversely affect and spread through the body’s lymphatic system, but there are some differences that can affect treatment options. To understand the differences between Hodgkin lymphoma, also known as Hodgkin’s disease, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, it may be helpful to briefly consider the role of the lymphatic system where these cancers occur.

What is the lymphatic system?

Lymph is a watery fluid that circulates through the body via a network of vessels, tissues and organs called the lymphatic system. This fluid carries a number of vital substances, including lymphocytes, which are infection-fighting white blood cells that play a key role in the body’s immune system.  

Lymphoma is a form of cancer that affects the lymphocytes. The primary difference between Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma is the type of lymphocyte that is affected. Hodgkin lymphoma is marked by the presence of Reed-Sternberg lymphocytes, which a physician can identify using a microscope. In non-Hodgkin lymphoma, these cells are not present.

What are Reed-Sternberg cells?

The dominant abnormalities of these cells are their large size and structure that includes multiple nuclei. As is characteristic of other types of cancer cells, they also multiply uncontrollably and collect in an abnormal way. Reed-Sternberg cells, specifically, collect in parts of the lymphatic system, typically the lymph nodes. Over time, the buildup of these abnormal lymphocytes can lead to tumor growth and interfere with the body’s ability to fight off infection.

portrait of blockquote author

"In both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, treatments is one of the most advanced and efficacious for cancer. It can range from observation only, to chemotherapy, immunotherapy and most recently cellular therapy.”"

- Hayder Saeed, MD

Other differentiators

In addition to the presence or lack of Reed-Sternberg cells, other differences between Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma include that:

  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is more common than Hodgkin lymphoma, though both types of cancer are relatively rare.
  • The majority of non-Hodgkin patients are over the age of 55 when first diagnosed, whereas the median age for diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma is 39.
  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma may arise in lymph nodes anywhere in the body, whereas Hodgkin lymphoma typically begins in the upper body, such as the neck, chest or armpits.
  • Hodgkin lymphoma tends to progress in a more predictable way than non-Hodgkin lymphoma, making it easier to recognize and treat.

How do the symptoms of Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma compare?

Despite the many differences between these two types of lymphatic cancer, both have similar symptoms, such as:

  • Enlarged lymph nodes in the armpits, neck or groin
  • Fever and/or night sweats
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Severe itching
  • Ongoing fatigue

One difference is that some people with Hodgkin lymphoma experience pain with lymph node swelling after consuming alcohol. If you notice any of these symptoms, it is important to consult with a physician.

What treatment options are available?

Treatment for Hodgkin or non-Hodgkin lymphoma will depend on the type of lymphatic cancer you have, its stage, your overall health and many other factors. At Moffitt Cancer Center, the multispecialty experts that make up our Malignant Hematology Program collaborate as a tumor board to review patient cases, ensuring each patient receives an individualized treatment plan that addresses his or her unique needs.

To learn more about receiving lymphoma treatment at Moffitt, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form. At Moffitt, we understand the importance of getting started on the right treatment as soon as possible, so all new patients are connected to a cancer expert within a day of reaching out to us.