Understanding non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is the name for many cancers that affect your lymphocytes (white blood cells). As part of your immune system, these cells play an important role in fighting infections. However, when they grow abnormally, lymphocytes can become cancerous.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma starts in either B-cells (which create antibodies that fight infection) or T-cells (which help B-cells make antibodies and might kill cancer cells). Some non-Hodgkin lymphomas are aggressive and grow quickly. Others grow and spread slowly (indolent).

At the UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center, hematologic or blood-related cancer specialists care for people with all types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. We are Wisconsin’s only Comprehensive Cancer Center, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. Our expert care begins with a careful diagnosis so you can get the best possible treatment.

Symptoms and diagnosis

Detecting non-Hodgkin lymphoma

There are several possible signs and symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma:

  • Itchy skin or skin rash

  • Night sweats

  • Swollen lymph nodes in the groin, neck, stomach or underarm

  • Unexplained fever

  • Unexplained pain in your abdomen, bones or chest

  • Unexplained weight loss

Making a diagnosis

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma symptoms are also common with other health conditions. But if you have symptoms, you should tell your doctor. Your doctor might do an exam and run tests to determine the cause of your symptoms. One test, a biopsy, involves sampling all or part of a lymph node and examining it under the microscope for signs of cancer. It is one of many possible ways to diagnose lymphoma.

Getting a clear diagnosis is key, as it will guide decisions about your treatment. But lymphomas are among the most misdiagnosed cancers.

At the UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center, we have a team of highly experienced blood pathologists. They’re up to date on the latest ways to diagnose lymphoma. They review all biopsies performed at the Carbone Cancer Center and even serve other facilities. In about one in five cases, our experts change or clarify the results from other labs. An accurate diagnosis can have important implications for your treatment and prognosis.

Meet our team

Experts working together to help you heal

At the UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center, we use a team approach to care. It helps us meet all your needs: physical, emotional and practical.

Your team includes specialized doctors who focus on your physical well-being. But we also have experts who focus on other areas, such as your mental health, family concerns and financial needs. They make sure the care you receive will be just right for you and your disease.

Your team might also include:

  • Health psychologists

  • Hematologic nurses

  • Hematologic oncologists

  • Hematopathologists

  • Nutritionists

  • Radiation oncologists

  • Social workers

Treatments and research

Your cancer care

Our team uses what they learn about your cancer to guide decisions about your treatment. They also consider your needs and preferences, so you get the treatment that will work best for you.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma treatments

In some cases, doctors recommend watchful waiting for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. During this time, your doctor monitors you closely and provides treatment only if symptoms appear or change. In other cases, your doctor may recommend one or more therapies. We might also offer treatment to help manage tumor-related side effects and preserve fertility.

This treatment uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancerous cells. For non-Hodgkin lymphoma, biological therapies include introducing lab-made proteins (monoclonal antibodies). These antibodies bind to cancerous cells or other cells that have a role in cancer growth. They help the immune system slow or stop cancer growth.

This procedure addresses hard-to-treat cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It involves replacing unhealthy lymphocytes (white blood cells) with healthy stem cells. You first receive high doses of chemotherapy or radiation to kill cancerous cells. Then doctors introduce healthy stem cells into your body. The stem cells can come from you, someone else or umbilical cord blood. These new cells will allow your body to make healthy white blood cells.

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This treatment involves removing immune system cells (T-cells) from your body and, in a lab, changing them so they can better attack specific cancerous cells. Doctors then return the cells to your body to help fight your cancer more effectively.

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This treatment uses powerful drugs to attack cancerous cells. The drugs travel throughout the body with the goal of killing any diseased cells.

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Our specialists use the most advanced high-energy rays and other forms of precise radiation to kill cancer cells.

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Non-Hodgkin lymphoma clinical trials

The UW Carbone Cancer Center is a national research center for improving cancer care. Our experts might recommend you take part in a clinical trial to access the most advanced and innovative treatments. These treatments might not be available at other cancer centers.

Find a clinical trial


Care close to home

The UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center provides care throughout Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Not all cancers are treated at every location; however, we will make every effort to connect you with care at a location convenient to you.

Patient and support services

Online informational resources

For more information about non-Hodgkin lymphoma, visit: