9 Lymphoma Warning Signs To Watch For

The signs are often vague and non-specific, so never assume you have this type of cancer based on symptoms alone.

Many types of cancer don't cause noticeable symptoms, at least not in the earliest stages. That's often the case for people with lymphoma, provided they have the low-grade (slow-growing) type.

But even low-grade lymphoma sometimes causes problems. Lymphoma can progress, becoming a more aggressive type of cancer after some years. At that point, symptoms are much more likely to become apparent or bothersome.

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Lymphoma Definition

Lymphoma: A type of cancer that begins in lymphatic system cells. Your lymphatic system produces and uses white blood cells, which protect against infections and illnesses. The two main types are Hodgkin's lymphoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL). Healthcare providers can often cure Hodgkin's lymphoma if treated early. The prognosis of NHL depends on the specific type.

What Are the Symptoms of Lymphoma?

Lymphoma symptoms can vary from person to person, so not everyone experiences the same issues. 

Additionally, many symptoms associated with lymphoma can be vague or caused by different, unrelated ailments. So, you shouldn't assume that having one of them means you have lymphoma.

Still, it's wise to be aware of the following possible lymphoma symptoms and let a healthcare provider know if you experience any of them.

Swollen Lymph Nodes

Lymphoma primarily impacts the lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are white blood cells made in your bone marrow and lymph nodes. 

Lymphocytes mostly hang out in the lymph nodes, including your neck, groin, and armpit. Your spleen, located below your left rib cage, is also home to many lymphocytes.

When you catch an infection, your lymph nodes recruit more white blood cells to help them fight off the invader. For example, you may notice that they swell up and feel tender when you're coming down with a cold, Felipe Samaniego, MD, board-certified internist and medical oncologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, told Health.

But in people with lymphoma, the lymph nodes may enlarge because they're filled with an abundance of cancerous cells. Your spleen might become enlarged for the same reason.

Lymph nodes that swell up due to lymphoma aren't usually as painful as they are when you're coming down with an infection. However, some people with cancer notice an ache.

Fever or Chills

Fever is another sign that your body's immune system is activating, Gary Schiller, MD, a clinical investigator in acute and chronic leukemias, multiple myeloma, and other hematologic malignancies at the University of California in Los Angeles, told Health

Your immune system activates because you've caught an infection that your body needs to fight off. Or cancerous cells, such as lymphoma, can trigger that response.

Tell a healthcare provider if you're coming down with fevers for no apparent reason. They can investigate and determine the root cause of the problem.

Night Sweats

You might wake up drenched for several reasons, such as hormonal changes related to menopause or an autoimmune disease. But some people with lymphoma also experience night sweats.

Any lymphoma can cause night sweats, though it's not understood why. Night sweats may be part of your body's reaction to the chemicals the lymphoma cells produce.

Also, the symptom suggests that you might have spiking fevers at night or have problems regulating your body temperature.

Loss of Appetite

Not feeling hungry or getting full very quickly is another possible sign of lymphoma. Some patients also feel nauseous, vomit, or develop abdominal pain.

Lymphoma can develop in lymph nodes in the abdomen or lymphatic tissue in your liver or spleen. So, the cancer can result in abdominal symptoms, such as:

  • Bloating
  • Nausea
  • Pain
  • Loss of appetite

If lymphoma affects the spleen, you might feel bloated or full after eating a small amount of food. In that case, the spleen may have enlarged with cancerous lymphocytes that can press on your stomach.

Lymphoma affecting your liver might also cause you to feel bloated, resulting from a fluid build-up in your abdomen. 

Also, lymphoma in the stomach can cause swelling of the stomach lining, causing pain or nausea. And lymphoma in the bowel can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, or constipation.

Persistent and Overwhelming Fatigue

Feeling tired all the time is another possible lymphoma symptom, albeit a vague one. Keep in mind that many other things could make you feel wiped out. 

For people with lymphoma, exhaustion often stems from anemia. Anemia is a lack of red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout your body. Because people with lymphoma overproduce lymphocytes, there's less room in the bone marrow to produce other healthy cells, including red blood cells.

Easy Bruising or Bleeding

Bleeding problems such as nosebleeds, heavy menstrual bleeding, or a rash of tiny blood spots under the skin can also be a warning sign of lymphoma.

Easy bruising or bleeding is related to the lack of production of healthy cells. People with lymphoma might not make enough platelets, which help your blood clot. If you're bruising more easily than you used to or have trouble stopping the bleeding whenever you nick yourself, consider it a possible warning sign.

Coughing, Chest Pressure, or Shortness of Breath

Sometimes lymphomas start in the thymus gland, another part of your immune system located in the chest. 

If the thymus gland or other lymph nodes in your chest swell up, they might press on the windpipe and lead to coughing, chest pain, or chest pressure. Swollen lymph nodes can also cause fluid to collect around your lungs.

Swollen lymph nodes in the chest are common with Hodgkin's lymphoma and some types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. However, any lymphoma can cause them.

Swollen lymph nodes in the chest can cause symptoms such as:

  • Dry cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Loud breathing
  • Pain located behind your breastbone
  • Chest pressure

Additionally, those symptoms can be worse when you lie down.

Anytime you have severe trouble breathing—regardless of whether it's due to lymphoma—consider it a medical emergency and get help immediately.

Unexplained Weight Loss

Dropping a significant amount—about 10% of your starting body weight or more over six months—without changing your usual eating and exercise pattern may be a red flag.

Weight loss sometimes happens because cancer cells grow far more quickly than normal cells and use up more energy than healthy cells. Additionally, your body uses energy to try to get rid of the cancerous cells.

Weight loss is more common with fast-growing lymphomas than with low-grade kinds. High-grade lymphomas can put a sudden demand on your body.

But keep in mind that lymphoma is just one of many possible causes of unexplained weight loss. Stress, depression, digestive problems, or an overactive thyroid gland are all causes of unexplained weight loss.

Itchy Skin

Dry skin and allergies often make people itchy, so the symptom is usually nothing alarming. 

But if you've recently started feeling unusually itchy—especially in your hands, legs, or feet—it might be related to lymphoma. Itchy skin can be severe and might also cause a burning sensation. Some people with lymphoma also develop a visible rash, but that's not always the case.

Experts think the relentless itchiness is due to the immune system releasing chemicals called cytokines that can irritate nerve endings in the skin.

Itching caused by lymphoma can affect:

  • Patches of skin near affected lymph nodes
  • Areas of skin lymphoma
  • The lower legs
  • Your entire body

You should contact a healthcare provider if you have itching that affects your whole body or lasts for more than two weeks.

When to Contact a Healthcare Provider

If you notice any of the symptoms listed or experience any change in your body that isn't normal for you, contact a healthcare provider as soon as possible. 

Your symptoms might not be due to lymphoma. But if it is, the earlier it's picked up, the higher the chances are of successful treatment. 

It would help to bring a list of notes and questions to help you get the most out of your visit with a healthcare provider. Some tips for your visit include:

  • Keep a journal of your symptoms, including when they started, when they occur, and how often you have them.
  • Write down anything that makes your symptoms worse or better.
  • Be honest. Tell a healthcare provider if you are worried about lymphoma.
  • Discuss any family history of cancer.
  • Ask a healthcare provider to explain anything you don’t understand and write things down if you think it might help.

A Quick Review

Lymphoma is a broad term for cancer that begins in lymphatic system cells. Hodgkin lymphoma and NHL are the two types of lymphoma.

Having one or more of the symptoms outlined does not necessarily mean that you have lymphoma. Remember that there are many other possible causes for many of those symptoms.

However, you should see a healthcare provider if you experience any possible lymphoma symptoms. Catching the cancer early often allows for more treatment options.

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