What’s the difference between lymphoma and lymphedema? Lymphedema is when lymph
fluid blocks the flow of lymph fluid and causes swelling. Lymphoma is a group of
cancers that affect white blood cells that help fight infection. The two basic forms
of lymphoma are Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) and Hodgkin lymphoma. The majority of
people (90%) who are diagnosed with lymphoma have some type of NHL.
Unfortunately, since lymphedema and lymphoma have such similar-sounding names, hearing
there’s a problem with your lymphatic system can be confusing — and scary. Here’s
more about what lymphoma and lymphedema are and what the difference is between the
two, starting with lymphedema.
What is lymphedema?
Lymphedema happens when lymph fluid collects in the lymph nodes or other parts of
the lymphatic system and causes swelling. While lymphedema causes discomfort, it’s
not dangerous in and of itself. But it still is important that you find out why
the blockage is occurring, since sometimes it’s associated with a malignancy such
as breast cancer that can be dangerous if left untreated.
There are two types of lymphedema:
- Primary lymphedema, which is often due to congenital (genetic) syndromes.
- Secondary lymphedema is commonly associated with cancer treatment regardless
of whether surgery, radiation or chemotherapy is used. It can happen even with a
simple blood draw in a location where you’ve had cellulitis (an infection and inflammation
of the subsurface skin cells). If you have been treated for cancer (recently or
not), you will have been given information about lymphedema. Remember to contact
your healthcare provider if it occurs.
How is lymphedema treated?
Lymphedema is treated by trying to relieve the blockage and restore proper flow
of lymph. There are several ways to do this — but we urge you to consult your healthcare
provider before you undertake treatment.
- Compression garments (socks or stockings if in the
leg; other elastic, snug-fitting garments for other limbs or body parts). These
should fit snugly but not so tightly that they cut off circulation. The goal is
to increase pressure so lymph moves more forcefully through its channels. Avoid
so much pressure that it stops movement, which is counterproductive.
- Manual lymphatic drainage, which is a massage of
the affected area to promote movement of lymph through the channels. It is usually
used in conjunction with compression garments.
- Pneumatic compression therapy uses a device to create
pressure adjacent to the affected area, effectively pushing the lymph out of the
area of swelling. It is usually is done on an outpatient basis, but is not used
in patients with deep venous thrombosis, congestive heart failure or active infections,
as it can worsen those conditions.
- Surgery to remove areas of scar tissue or to improve
lymph drainage. It is usually reserved for patients whose lymphedema is recurrent
or chronic, for whom other kinds of therapy do not work, or in whom the swelling
is so serious as to prevent them from normal activities.
You can find out more about your lymphatic system and how to keep it health, with
our article The
lymphatic system and your health.
How can you prevent lymphedema?
One of the best ways to avoid lymphedema altogether is simply moving your body.
If you’ve just undergone cancer treatment, this might be easier said than done —
but exercise doesn’t have to be intense. Simply walking or swimming or engaging
in gentle stretching or yoga is sufficient. Deep breathing exercises can also be
helpful, as it expands and contracts muscles that compress abdominal and thoracic
What is lymphoma?
Lymphoma is cancer that affects white blood cells called lymphocytes that help fight
infection, which are carried by the lymph channels as well as in the blood. There
are two different kinds of lymphocyte — B and T lymphocytes — and either or both
can be affected.
When lymphocytes transform into cancerous cells, they often collect in lymph nodes
to create a mass, or tumor, that you may be able to feel as a lump. A lump in your
armpit or neck (where the most obvious lymph nodes are located) that doesn’t seem
to be related to an illness and that doesn’t go away or that increases in size is
something you should check out, regardless of whether it is painful.
Common signs and symptoms of lymphoma
- Lump in your armpit or neck
- Night sweats
- Fever or chills
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Shortness of breath
- Itching (25% of patients)
- Headache or pain in the back or bones
Most of these symptoms can be mistaken for the flu or other viral infection, but
where a virus would eventually get better, lymphoma symptoms will persist. If you
experience such vague, flu-like symptoms for a particularly long time, it’s best
to see your healthcare provider.
Risk factors for lymphoma
There are numerous risk factors for lymphoma, many of which you can reduce:
- Autoimmune diseases that affect your B- or T-lymphocytes
- Family history of similar cancer
- Certain acquired or inherited immune deficiencies
- Alcohol use
- Exposure to certain pesticides and herbicides
How is lymphoma treated?
When it comes to lymphoma, that scary word, “cancer,” may not mean what you fear
it does. There are many different types of lymphoma, and some are so slow-moving
that they need no treatment at all for several years. So much of what having lymphoma
might mean for you depends what type of lymphoma it is.
If you have symptoms that suggest lymphoma, your practitioner will arrange for you
to have a biopsy to collect cells to be examined for the presence of cancer. Imaging
scans may be done before or after the biopsy to pinpoint locations where cancerous
cells might be found. A pathologist will look at the cells, identify any that appear
malignant and further classify the cancer cells to narrow down the type of lymphoma
Treatment options tend to be very specific to different types of lymphoma. Other
factors for the type of treatment include how strong your immune system is, how
far the cancer has progressed, where it’s located, and whether it’s slow-moving
(also called indolent) or aggressive (fast-moving).
An indolent lymphoma may need no treatment at all for months or even years. A “watch
and wait” approach may be taken to see if the disease shows signs of progressing,
and treatment is only started if it does.
When treatment is necessary, it usually consists of chemotherapy or immunotherapy
— drugs specifically targeting the type of lymphoma you have. Radiation therapy
may or may not be recommended as well. Specialized treatments include stem cell
transplants and bone marrow transplants. These tend to be reserved for particularly
aggressive lymphomas that do not respond to standard drug therapies.
If you want to learn more about the types of lymphoma, treatment methods, visit
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society
or the American Cancer
Society. The site also includes good information for support resources you
may find helpful.
American Cancer Society. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma risk factors. Available at https://www.cancer.org/cancer/non-hodgkin-lymphoma/causes-risks-prevention/risk-factors.html
(accessed July 6, 2017).
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Types of treatment: Watch and wait. Available at
https://www.lls.org/treatment/types-of-treatment/watch-and-wait/ (accessed July
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Types of treatment: Stem cell transplantation. Available
at https://www.lls.org/treatment/types-of-treatment/stem-cell-transplantation/ (accessed
July 6, 2017).
National Lymphedema Network. What causes lymphedema? Available at https://www.lymphnet.org/overview/what-is-lymphedema/what-causes-lymphedema
(accessed July 5, 2017).
Rossy KM. Lymphedema treatment & management. Medscape Apr 10, 2017; http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1087313-treatment#d13.