The rate of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma has nearly doubled since the 1970s, but advances in treatments are offering new hope.
Laura Colton Tepper had just endured her second round of chemotherapy for her slow-growing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL), and this time, things looked good.
"Everything had just melted away," Laura said. She and her husband headed to Puerto Rico, warm and far away, to celebrate and relax. But on just her second day off the plane, Laura found she had another, unwelcome travel companion. "I noticed I had a huge lump in my neck," she said. Her next step: "Panic."
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Laura knew that usually each cycle of chemotherapy bought less and less time between relapses. This remission had lasted only six months. She was not yet 50. Her cousin had just died after living with her own lymphoma for seven years. Though Laura's lymphoma was growing slowly, she said, "It was odds I didn't like."
So Laura's oncologist enrolled her in a clinical trial comparing two new NHL drugs. She underwent a third round of chemotherapy, then a fourth, so sure that final round would work. She was right. Today, eight years later, Laura still nervously checks herself for any new lumps or bumps. But relief and hope give her voice a lift when she says: "I'm still in remission."
NHL: Diagnoses Are Up; So Are Options
Laura is among the 54,000 Americans diagnosed each year with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL) - once uncommon cancers of the immune system. The rate of NHL in the U.S. has nearly doubled since the 1970s. And for many people with these cancers, like Laura, relapse scenarios are all too familiar. But treatment options for NHL are on the rise.
Rising rates of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in the U.S. are likely due to more widespread use of drugs that affect the immune system, according to Stephanie Gregory, MD, oncologist and professor of medicine at Rush University Medical Center.
"We're helping people with autoimmune diseases and organ transplants to live longer," she tells WebMD. Part of the cost is "an increase in the incidence of lymphomas."
And non-Hodgkin's lymphoma can defy generalization, because there are over 20 different forms of the disease.
"You could be in a room with 100 people with lymphoma and at most only 30 people would have the same thing you're dealing with," John Leonard, MD, director of the Cornell Center for Lymphoma and Myeloma at Weill Cornell Medical Center, tells WebMD.
Lymphomas result when certain blood cells, called lymphocytes, multiply and refuse to obey normal signals -- especially the command to die normally. Lymphocytes build up, especially in lymph nodes, and eventually cause serious problems by their size and their ineffectiveness at fighting infections, which is their usual job.
For slow-growing lymphomas, long-term survival is common, although they cannot be cured. More aggressive tumors are more dangerous, but a permanent cure is possible. The lymphoma type, its effects, and its growth rate determine the best treatment.
The most common types of NHL are:
The usually slow-growing follicular lymphoma
The often more aggressive diffuse large B-cell lymphoma