What is non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

Last medical review:

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) is a cancer that starts in lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell. They are found in the bone marrow, blood and lymphatic system. They help protect the body against germs and abnormal cells, including cancer cells.

NHL includes many different types of lymphoma. But NHL is different from and more common than Hodgkin lymphoma. Hodgkin lymphoma is treated differently than NHL. Find out more about Hodgkin lymphoma.

NHL can start almost anywhere in the body, but most types develop in the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is an important part of the immune system. It helps your body fight infection and disease. The lymphatic system is made up of lymph fluid (which carries lymphocytes), lymph vessels, lymph nodes and lymphatic organs and tissues, such as the tonsils and spleen. Find out more about the lymphatic system.

NHL often starts in a group of lymph nodes in one part of the body, such as in the neck, above the collarbone, under the arms, in the abdomen or in the groin.

Diagram of the lymphatic system
Diagram of the lymphatic system

Types of NHL

There are many different types of NHL. Some types are more common than others, and some are very rare.

The types of NHL are often described by the type of lymphocyte the lymphoma starts in:

  • B-cell lymphomas start in B cells.
  • T-cell lymphomas start in T cells.
  • NK lymphomas start in natural killer (NK) cells.

Each type of NHL is also described and grouped based on how quickly the cancer is growing:

  • Indolent lymphomas tend to grow and spread slowly, so they may not cause any signs and symptoms at first. The most common type of indolent NHL is follicular lymphoma.
  • Aggressive lymphomas grow and spread quickly. They tend to cause severe symptoms soon after they develop, so they need to be treated right away. They also tend to come back and need more treatment. The most common type of aggressive NHL is diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL).

Sometimes doctors describe the type of NHL by where it is found in the body and by certain genetic changes within the lymphoma cells.

Find out more about the different types of NHL and how they are treated.

Expert review and references

  • Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. NHL Subtypes. www.lls.org. Wednesday, May 25, 2022.
  • PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. Adult Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Treatment (PDQ®) – Patient Version. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute; 2021: https://www.cancer.gov/.
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Cancer.net: Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. 2021: https://www.cancer.net/.
  • Lymphoma Canada. Understanding NHL: A Patient's Guide to Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. 2020: www.lymphoma.ca.
  • Leukemia and Lymphoma Society . Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma . 2020 : www.lls.org.
  • American Cancer Society. Treating Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma . 2018: https://www.cancer.org/.
  • PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. Adult Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Leukemia Treatment (PDQ®) – Health Professional Version. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute; 2022: https://www.cancer.gov/.

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