Are You at Risk for Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma?

Are You at Risk for Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma?

Find out the risk factors for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in the United States.

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL) is a form of blood cancer that begins in the lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. Lymphocytes come in two main varieties, B cells and T cells. Both play an important role in the immune system: B cells protect the body from foreign microbes such as viruses, toxins or bacteria, while T cells destroy cells that are infected with a virus or have become cancerous.

What are the risk factors for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma?
What causes NHL remains unknown, but the American Cancer Society identifies numerous risk factors that could increase your risk of getting this type of cancer:

  • Age: People diagnosed with NHL are usually over 60 years of age, but people of all ages develop NHL, and certain types of lymphoma are more common in younger people.
  • Family history: There is evidence of a genetic predisposition to NHL.
  • Gender: Both men and women develop NHL. On the whole, more men develop NHL, though certain subtypes of NHL are more common in women.
  • Race, ethnicity, location: NHL is more common in Caucasians than in African Americans and Asian Americans, at least in the United States. The U.S. and Europe have the highest rates of the disease.
  • Exposure to chemicals: Exposure to benzene, an industrial chemical, may be associated with an increased risk of NHL. This is also true of some herbicides and insecticides (weed killers and insect killers).
  • Other cancer treatments: Having been treated with chemotherapy, radiation therapy—and especially both—increases the risk of developing NHL later in life.
  • Exposure to radiation: Survivors of atomic bombings and nuclear reactor accidents develop cancer in higher rates, including NHL.
  • Autoimmune diseases: Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, celiac disease and other autoimmune conditions are associated with an increased risk.
  • Organ transplant: Such as having a kidney or liver transplant.
  • Weakened immune system: Due to an organ transplant, HIV infection or an inherited syndrome that causes a weakened immune system.
  • Other health conditions: Hepatitis C, HIV, chlamydia, herpes and Epstein-Barr virus are all associated with an increased risk.

Reducing your risk
There have been studies that suggest lifestyle factors may increase a person’s risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, though more research is needed. These include being overweight or obese, and a diet high in meat and saturated fats. Conversely, exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and a diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk—and have numerous other benefits to overall health.

For the most part, most people who get non-Hodgkin's lymphoma have no risk factors that can be changed. Whether you have a known risk factor or not, the most important thing to do is see a healthcare provider regularly so that signs and symptoms of NHL—or any disease—can be detected as early as possible.

Medically reviewed in March 2020.

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