8 Tests to Diagnose Lymphoma

Learn about the different types of tests used to detect cancer in the lymphatic system.

Medically reviewed in March 2022

Lymphoma is the term used to categorize cancers that begin in the lymphatic system, which is part of the body's immune system. Lymphoma is a common type of cancer. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the most common form of lymphoma, accounts for roughly 4 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the United States.

Enlarged lymph nodes are a common symptom of lymphoma. Lymph nodes store white blood cells in clusters, or nodes, in the lymphatic system. They are located throughout the body, including in the neck, underarms and groin.

Swollen lymph nodes are a symptom of many illnesses, so if a person has swollen nodes, it does not necessarily mean they have cancer. Other symptoms can overlap as well, which means it can be challenging to determine whether enlarged nodes signify lymphoma, another form of cancer or a different illness altogether. The following are some diagnostic tests that healthcare providers (HCPs) may use to determine the correct diagnosis.

Clinical exam
During an exam, your HCP will check your lymph nodes for swelling and for signs of infection or skin injury. Your provider will also take your medical history, ask about any other symptoms and order a blood test to check your white blood cell count.

Blood tests may also be used to pinpoint certain lymphoma types and find out how far cancer has progressed. They can assess kidney and liver function, as well, and detect viruses that could have an effect on your treatment. There is no single blood test to diagnose lymphoma.

Imaging tests
A chest X-ray can reveal swollen lymph nodes. But your healthcare provider may order a computerized tomography scan (CT scan) to take pictures of your head, neck, chest, abdomen and pelvis. It can show the extent of the cancer and if it has spread.

An ultrasound or a positron emission tomography scan (PET scan) are other options. Ultrasounds use sound waves to generate images, while PET scans use radioactive glucose, which tends to collect in cancer cells. This highlights areas of cancer and may be able to help determine if an enlarged node is benign or cancerous.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is done on occasion, often if your HCP has worries about cancer in your brain or spinal cord.

Biopsy
During a biopsy, your physician will remove all or part of a lymph node to check for abnormal cells. A biopsy can be used to confirm or rule out lymphoma. It will likely be done in order to determine the type of lymphoma. A similar test called bone marrow aspiration and biopsy removes small amounts of bone marrow, blood and bone with a needle.

After diagnosis
After determining that a patient has lymphoma, the next steps will be to learn about the cancer. Your HCP will want to know the stage, where it has spread in your body and how aggressive the cancer is. More tests will be performed, and this important information will be used to decide on a treatment plan.

Sources:

National Cancer Institute. “Lymphoma—Patient Version.” 2020. Accessed November 9, 2020.
American Cancer Society. “Key Statistics for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.” January 8, 2020. Accessed November 9, 2020.
American Cancer Society. “Signs and Symptoms of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.” August 1, 2018. Accessed November 9, 2020.
Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. “Diagnosis.” 2020. Accessed November 9, 2020.
American Cancer Society. “Tests for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.” August 1, 2018. Accessed November 9, 2020.
Mayo Clinic. “Symptoms: Low white blood cell count.” November 30, 2018. Accessed November 9, 2020.
Cancer Treatment Centers of America. “Computed tomography (CT) scan.” 2020. Accessed November 9, 2020.
Merck Manual Consumer Version. “Non-Hodgkin Lymphomas (Non-Hodgkin's Lymphomas).” July 2020. Accessed November 9, 2020.

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