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Childhood Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jul 4, 2022.

What is non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, or non-Hodgkin disease, is a cancer of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system contains lymph vessels, lymph nodes, and glands, such as the spleen and thymus. Lymph vessels carry lymph fluid throughout the body. Lymph fluid contains lymphocytes (white blood cells) that help fight infection and disease. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma causes lymphocytes to grow and divide without control and to form tumors. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma can develop in any lymph tissue in the body. Common places are lymph nodes in the neck, underarm, and chest. Cancer cells can travel from lymph node to lymph node and spread through the body. Childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma usually affects older children. Some types are rare in children of any age.

What causes childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

There is no known cause of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The following may increase your child's risk:

  • Long-term exposure to chemicals, such as pesticides, or nitrates in drinking water
  • A family history of non-Hodgkin lymphoma
  • Exposure to high amounts of radiation
  • A weakened immune system

What are the signs and symptoms of childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, arm, or groin
  • Trouble breathing, or a cough
  • Feeling more tired than usual
  • Fever, itchy skin, or night sweats
  • Pain or swelling in the abdomen and pain in the lower back or in both legs
  • Weight loss you cannot explain

How is childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosed?

Your child's healthcare provider will ask about your child's symptoms and when they began. Tell him if your child has a family history of non-Hodgkin lymphoma or other risk factors. Your child's healthcare provider will look for symptoms of a problem with an organ to help him diagnose non-Hodgkin lymphoma. For example, shortness of breath may mean lymph tissue in your child's lung or chest is affected. Your child may need any of the following to help diagnose non-Hodgkin lymphoma:

  • Blood tests may show abnormal white blood cells or signs of anemia (not enough red blood cells). The tests may also be used to measure the amount of inflammation in your child's blood. Blood tests can also be used to check his liver and kidney function, or see if the cancer has spread to bone.
  • A biopsy is a procedure to remove a sample of bone marrow or lymph node to be tested. Bone marrow is tissue inside the bone. Your child's healthcare provider may test a bone marrow sample to see if the cancer has spread to bone. He may use a needle to take a sample from a lymph node, or remove a lymph node during surgery.
  • X-ray, CT, MRI, or PET scan pictures may be taken of your child's chest, abdomen, and pelvis. The pictures may show where the cancer is located. Your child's healthcare provider may use the x-rays to look for tumors, blockages, signs of infection, or other problems. Your child may be given contrast liquid to help the cancer show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if your child has ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not let your child enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if your child has any metal in or on his body.

How is childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma treated?

Treatment will depend on your child's age and development. Treatment will also depend on the size and location of any tumors. The type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma your child has may also factor into the treatment decision.

  • Chemotherapy is medicine used to treat cancer by killing tumor cells. Chemotherapy may also be used to shrink lymph nodes that contain cancer.
  • Radiation therapy uses x-rays or gamma rays to treat cancer. Radiation kills cancer cells and may stop the cancer from spreading. It may be given alone or with chemotherapy to treat cancer.
  • A bone marrow transplant is a procedure to replace your child's diseased bone marrow with healthy marrow. He may be given bone marrow from a donor. His own marrow may be used if it is collected when his cancer is in remission (not active). The bone marrow transplant is given to your child in an IV while he is in the hospital.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

What can I do to care for my child?

  • Have your child rest as needed. Your child should return to activities slowly, and do more as he feels stronger.
  • Offer your child a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods will help your child get the protein, carbohydrates, and other nutrients his body needs. You may need to change the foods your child eats depending on his treatments and side effects. He may also need to eat more calories than usual. Work with a dietitian to plan the best meals and snacks for your child. Ask if he should take vitamins.
  • Keep your child away from people who have a cold or the flu. Also try to keep him away from large groups of people to decrease his risk.
  • Talk to your older child about not smoking. Talk to your healthcare provider if your child needs help quitting. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Ask your child's healthcare provider for information before your child uses these products.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • Your child has chest pain, his heart pounds or races, or he has trouble breathing.
  • Your child is too dizzy to stand, or he has trouble keeping his balance.
  • Your child has a seizure.
  • Your child's legs swell.
  • Your child cannot think clearly, or he feels confused.
  • Your child feels weak or numb on one side of his body.

When should I contact my child's healthcare provider?

  • Your child has a fever.
  • Your child has back pain and weakness in his legs.
  • Your child has chills, a cough, red or swollen skin, or feels weak and achy.
  • Your child is vomiting and cannot keep any food or liquids down.
  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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