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Tests to Diagnose Lymphoma

Tests to Diagnose Lymphoma

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

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 forms 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. Lymph nodes are located throughout the body, including in the neck, underarms and groin.

However, swollen lymph nodes are a symptom of numerous other illnesses, and if a person has swollen lymph nodes it does not necessarily mean they have cancer. Other symptoms can overlap as well, which means it can be challenging to determine whether a cancer is lymphoma, another form of cancer or a different illness altogether. The following are some diagnostic tests that healthcare providers may use in order to determine the correct diagnosis.

Clinical exam
During an exam, your healthcare provider will check your lymph nodes to see if they are swollen and to see if there are signs of infection or skin injury. Your physician will also order a blood test to check your white blood cell count, take your medical history and ask you about any other symptoms that you are experiencing. While a blood test is not used to diagnose NHL, it is used to diagnose other diseases, including other forms of cancer.

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 chest, abdomen and pelvis, and 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 highlights areas of cancer and may be able to help determine if an enlarged node is benign or cancerous.

Biopsy
During a biopsy, your physician will remove a lymph node or part of a lymph node to check for abnormal cells. A biopsy can be used to confirm or rule out lymphoma, and will likely be done in order to determine the type of lymphoma it is. 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, including the stage, the areas of the body it has spread and how aggressive the cancer is—important information that will be used to decide on a treatment plan.

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