If you have swollen lymph nodes or another symptom that suggests Hodgkin’s lymphoma, your doctor will try to find out what’s causing the problem. Your doctor may ask about your personal and family medical history.
You may have some of the following exams and tests:
Physical exam: Your doctor checks for swollen lymph nodes in your neck, underarms and groin. Your doctor also checks for a swollen spleen or liver.
Blood tests: The lab does a complete blood count to check the number of white blood cells and other cells and substances.
Chest X-rays: X-rays may show swollen lymph nodes or other signs of disease in your chest.
Biopsy: A biopsy is the only sure way to diagnose Hodgkin lymphoma. Your doctor may remove an entire lymph node (known as an excisional biopsy) or only part a lymph node (incisional biopsy). A thin needle (fine needle aspiration) usually cannot remove a large enough sample for the pathologist to diagnose Hodgkin lymphoma. Removing an entire lymph node is best.
The pathologist uses a microscope to check the tissue for Hodgkin lymphoma cells. A person with Hodgkin lymphoma usually has large, abnormal cells known as Reed-Sternberg cells. They are not found in people with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Types of Hodgkin Lymphoma
When Hodgkin lymphoma is found, the pathologist reports the type. There are two major types of Hodgkin lymphoma:
Classical Hodgkin lymphoma: Most people with Hodgkin lymphoma have the classical type.
Nodular lymphocyte-predominant Hodgkin lymphoma: This is a rare type of Hodgkin lymphoma. The abnormal cell is called a popcorn cell. It may be treated differently from the classical type.
Your doctor needs to know the extent (stage) of Hodgkin lymphoma to plan the best treatment. Staging is a careful attempt to find out what parts of the body are affected by the disease. Hodgkin lymphoma tends to spread from one group of lymph nodes to the next group. For example, Hodgkin lymphoma that starts in the lymph nodes in the neck may spread first to the lymph nodes above the collarbones, and then to the lymph nodes under the arms and within the chest. In time, the Hodgkin lymphoma cells can invade blood vessels and spread to almost any other part of the body. For example, it can spread to the liver, lungs, bone, and bone marrow.
Staging may involve one or more of the following tests:
- CT scan: An x-ray machine linked to a computer takes a series of detailed pictures of your chest, abdomen, and pelvis. You may receive an injection of contrast material. Also, you may be asked to drink another type of contrast material. The contrast material makes it easier for the doctor to see swollen lymph nodes and other abnormal areas on the x-ray.
- MRI: A powerful magnet linked to a computer is used to make detailed pictures of your bones, brain, or other tissues. Your doctor can view these pictures on a monitor and can print them on film.
- PET scan: You receive an injection of a small amount of radioactive sugar. A machine makes computerized pictures of the sugar being used by cells in your body. Lymphoma cells use sugar faster than normal cells and areas with lymphoma look brighter on the pictures.
- Bone marrow biopsy: The doctor uses a thick needle to remove a small sample of bone and bone marrow from your hipbone or another large bone. Local anesthesia can help control pain. A pathologist looks for Hodgkin lymphoma cells in the sample.
Other staging procedures may include biopsies of other lymph nodes, the liver, or other tissue.
The doctor considers the following to determine the stage of Hodgkin lymphoma:
- The number of lymph nodes that have Hodgkin lymphoma cells
- Whether these lymph nodes are on one or both sides of the diaphragm
- Whether the disease has spread to the bone marrow, spleen, liver, or lung.
The stages of Hodgkin lymphoma are as follows:
Stage I: The lymphoma cells are in one lymph node group (such as in the neck or underarm). Or, if the lymphoma cells are not in the lymph nodes, they are in only one part of a tissue or an organ (such as the lung).
Stage II: The lymphoma cells are in at least two lymph node groups on the same side of (either above or below) the diaphragm. Or, the lymphoma cells are in one part of a tissue or an organ and the lymph nodes near that organ (on the same side of the diaphragm). There may be lymphoma cells in other lymph node groups on the same side of the diaphragm.
Stage III: The lymphoma cells are in lymph nodes above and below the diaphragm. Lymphoma also may be found in one part of a tissue or an organ (such as the liver, lung, or bone) near these lymph node groups. It may also be found in the spleen.
Stage IV: Lymphoma cells are found in several parts of one or more organs or tissues. Or, the lymphoma is in an organ (such as the liver, lung, or bone) and in distant lymph nodes.
In addition to these stage numbers, your doctor may also describe the stage as A or B:
A: You have not had weight loss, drenching night sweats, or fevers.
B: You have had weight loss, drenching night sweats, or fevers.