Actor Jeff Bridges, perhaps best known for playing “The Dude” in the 1998 film “The Big Lebowski,” recently announced on Twitter he had been diagnosed with lymphoma.
Lymphoma is a relatively rare cancer with fewer than 86,000 cases diagnosed each year, and less than 21,000 thousand deaths annually. It is also one of the easiest to treat when detected early and properly diagnosed.
The cancer affects the body’s germ-fighting lymphatic system. It starts when white blood cells, called lymphocytes, develop mutations and begin to multiply rapidly. The cells start affecting the lymphatic tissue that is in your neck, throat, chest, groin, armpits, digestive system, and bones.
There are two main types:
- Hodgkin lymphoma
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
Hodgkin lymphoma, or Hodgkin Disease, is the rarer of the two. Only half of 1 percent of new cancer diagnoses each year are Hodgkin lymphoma. It makes up only 0.2 percent of cancer deaths. That’s because it is one of the easiest cancers to diagnose and treat. Those diagnosed have a five-year survival rate of more than 87 percent.
Hodgkin lymphoma starts when a white blood cell mutates and begins to create more mutated white blood cells. Those cells continue to spread and affect other parts of the body.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) represents 4.3% of new cancer cases each year and 3.3 percent of annual cancer deaths. There are different kinds of NHL that start in cells in specific parts of the body.
NHL starts in the lymph nodes or lymphatic tissue. You’ve probably felt your lymph nodes beneath your jaw swell when you’re fighting an infection. Those nodes are part of the lymphatic system and can become cancerous.
Doctors aren’t sure what causes lymphoma. The cancer can affect anyone regardless of age or gender. There are some common factors among patients:
- Age. Some lymphomas affect young adults while others affect people over 55.
- Gender. Men develop lymphoma slightly more often than women.
- Immune system. People with compromised immune systems, due to disease like AIDS or hepatitis C, or because of medications, are more susceptible to lymphoma.
- Infections. Lymphoma has been associated with infections including Epstein-Barr and Helicobacter pylori infection.
- Family. While uncommon, there have been reports of people developing Hodgkin lymphoma when a parent or sibling has had it.
- Lifestyle. While most of the causes are beyond a person’s control, it’s good to eat a healthy diet and maintain a normal weight.
The following are common symptoms of lymphoma. They include:
- Painless swelling of lymph nodes in the neck, groin, or armpits
- Persistent fatigue
- Night sweats
- Shortness of breath
- Unexpected weight loss
- Itchy skin
You should see a doctor if they are persistent or become worrisome.
It is important to determine which type of lymphoma you have as there are several different types. With a proper diagnosis your doctor can develop the most effective treatment plan.
- Physical exam. The doctor will feel for swollen lymph nodes or a swollen spleen or liver.
- Testing a lymph node. Doctors sometimes will remove part or all of a lymph node to perform a test to determine if there is lymphoma and what type.
- Testing bone marrow. Doctors may check for lymphoma cells in a sample of marrow removed from the hip.
- Blood test. The number of cells in a blood sample can provide a clue for diagnosis.
- Imaging tests. CT scans, MRIs, and other imaging tests can help doctors find lymphoma in other parts of the body.
There are a variety of treatment options for lymphoma. Some are unique to the type of lymphoma and some are similar regardless of type. The general approach is to kill as many of the diseased cells as possible.
Possible options include:
- Chemotherapy which chemically kills all cells including the cancerous cells
- Immunotherapy where white blood cells or bone marrow is transplanted to fight the cancer cells
- Targeted drugs to go after the cancer cells
- Radiation therapy that gives focused doses to the affected areas
- High-dose chemotherapy for hard-to-kill cells coupled with stem cell transplants to rebuild bone marrow
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