Lymphoma is one of the few types of cancer that can develop and grow in the body without an individual knowing and it is only when the cancer spreads around the body to other organs that obvious symptoms become apparent. There are a number of symptoms that are commonly associated with lymphoma, such as swollen lymph glands, chronic fatigue, fever, night sweats and unexplained weight loss, however all of these symptoms can and often are caused by much less serious conditions such as a simple infection or the flu.
When the symptoms persist however most sufferers go to the doctor and although the doctor might have suspicions as to their cause he will undoubtedly send the individual for a series of diagnostic tests before confirming the presence of lymphoma. These diagnostic tests may include:
Because lymphoma affects the lymphocyte cells that travel in the blood stream, performing microscopic analysis of these cells can show if they are abnormal in shape and size or if they are present in very large numbers. Occasionally the cancerous lymphocytes will still be confined to the lymph glands and so will not show under the microscope however even during this early stage they release chemicals that are known as cancer markers and specific tests on blood can identify these markers.
CT and MRI scans
These are very high definition imaging techniques that can show just how large a tumor has grown and where in the body secondary tumors have spread to, if indeed they have spread. If the primary lymphoma tumor is in a position to be removed by surgery i.e. by removing the affected lymph glands, then the imaging techniques can help to identify possible complications before the surgery begins so that the surgeon doesn't encounter anything unexpected. They can also help to show how other lymphoma treatments are working because any shrinkage in the tumor size will be apparent when two separate images, taken at different times, are compared.
X-rays are commonly used in the diagnosis of lymphoma because when a radioactive agent is injected into the blood stream it causes any abnormal or cancerous cells to glow brightly on the X-ray film. By performing a torso scan i.e. of the major organs, any affected areas can easily be identified and the cancer specialist can get a good idea of the extent of the lymphoma and what treatment will be most appropriate.
Bone and liver biopsies
When other diagnostic tests have been performed and the lymphoma has been identified as late stage then bone and liver biopsies may be carried out. This involves a very thin slither of either bone or liver tissue being taken with a hollow needle and the resulting tissue is examined with a microscope. Generally if cancerous cells are found in either of the two sites then the lymphoma is deemed incurable and any treatment offered will be palliative i.e. it will make life more comfortable and it may prolong life for a short period of time.
Lymphoma can be a difficult cancer to treat and so it is important that it is diagnosed early. Some of the diagnostic tests are uncomfortable however they are much more preferable to endless rounds of chemotherapy and the adverse side effects that accompany it.
By Jeremy Parker
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