Lymphoma symptoms can vary depending on the type of lymphoma a patient has developed. However, it should be noted that it is possible to experience one or more of the symptoms associated with lymphoma without having the condition, as these symptoms could be attributed to other medical issues. Also, some patients have been diagnosed with lymphoma without having shown any symptoms. It is important for any patient who is concerned about lymphoma to consult with a physician who can order a series of diagnostic tests to either confirm or rule out cancer as a cause.
Common lymphoma symptoms
There are two primary types of lymphoma: Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin. Lymphoma affects the lymphocytes, and the classification as Hodgkin lymphoma or non-Hodgkin lymphoma will depend on the type of lymphocyte being impacted. With Hodgkin lymphoma, Reed-Sternberg cells will be present; with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, these cells will not be present. While symptoms may vary between these two types of lymphoma, there are some symptoms common to both types.
Lymph node swelling (often painless)
Someone with lymphoma may experience swelling in his or her lymph nodes, often in the neck, armpits, stomach or groin. This is the most common symptom of lymphoma (although there are various other conditions that can cause lymph node swelling, including ones as mild as the common cold). Lymphoma causes lymph node swelling when cancerous cells begin building up within the lymph nodes.
A swollen lymph node often feels like a smooth, round, rubbery lump, and oftentimes it will move out of the way if someone presses on it. Swollen lymph nodes are easier to see and feel when they occur in the neck, armpits or groin (rather than in the chest or stomach) because they’re closer to the skin’s surface. In most cases, lymph node swelling doesn’t cause any pain, although it may result in discomfort or an aching sensation if the swollen lymph nodes are pressing on a nerve or a nearby tissue.
Fever of unknown cause & severe night sweats
Someone who has lymphoma may experience a low-grade fever that’s often accompanied by chills. This occurs because the lymphoma cells produce certain chemicals that can increase a person’s body temperature. As a result, it’s common for individuals with lymphoma to experience severe night sweats that leave their pajamas, sheets and blankets soaking wet. Night sweats may also occur as a response to certain chemicals produced by the lymphoma cells in the body. Despite the name, this heavy sweating can also occur during the day.
Lymphoma can cause someone to feel exhausted—whether physically, mentally or emotionally—for no apparent reason. In many cases, this fatigue will be so severe that it prevents the person from taking part in normal routines. Unlike with normal tiredness, sleeping and resting won’t cause the person to feel any better. Researchers are still trying to determine exactly why lymphoma causes fatigue, but some potential explanations include changes in hormone levels, difficulty sleeping and reduced consumption of food due to a lack of appetite.
Unintentional weight loss
Someone with lymphoma may notice that his or her weight is dropping fairly quickly, despite not being on a diet and not exercising any more than usual. This often occurs because the lymphoma cells are depleting the person’s energy reserves, and because the person’s body is using up extra energy trying to fight off the cancer.
Unexplained rash or itchy skin
Lymphoma can cause a person to feel exceedingly itchy. This itchiness tends to be worse at night, when the person is lying in bed, and in some cases it can lead to an unpleasant burning sensation. In some instances, the itchiness may be accompanied by a rash, while at other times there will be no rash present at all. Researchers believe that the itching is caused by the immune system’s reaction to the lymphoma cells—as the person’s immune system tries to fight off the lymphoma, it produces certain chemicals than can irritate the person’s nerves and cause them to itch.
In addition to systemic symptoms (ones that affect the entire body), someone with lymphoma may experience localized symptoms (ones that are limited to the area where the lymphoma is located). In many instances, localized symptoms occur because the swollen lymph nodes caused by lymphoma end up pressing against nearby tissues. For example, if lymphoma is causing the lymph nodes in a person’s chest to swell, he or she may experience chest pain and difficulty breathing. Or, if lymphoma is present in a person’s abdomen, he or she might experience a feeling of being full.
Chest, abdomen or bone pain
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, specifically, may cause someone to experience pain in the chest, abdomen or bones for no known reason.
Our lymphoma treatment options
Moffitt Cancer Center’s Malignant Hematology Program helps people who believe they may have lymphoma make sense of their symptoms. Our board-certified physicians are highly specialized, and can diagnose, treat and help manage symptoms of all forms of lymphoma. In recognition of our scientific excellence, Moffitt has been designated as a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute—the only cancer center based in Florida to receive this distinction. Comprehensive Cancer Centers are known as major developers of new and more effective approaches to cancer diagnosis, treatment and prevention. This national prestige allows us to attract top physicians and scientists from around the world—individuals who ultimately shape the outstanding care we give to each and every patient.
Medically reviewed by Sameh Gaballa, MD Malignant Hematology.