Cancer is rare in children. When cancer does occur in children, lymphoma is a common type. Children can develop either Hodgkin or non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The outlook for childhood lymphoma is often quite positive.

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Lymphoma is cancer that starts in your lymphatic system, a part of your immune system that includes the lymph nodes as well as other tissues like the spleen and tonsils. This cancer starts in white blood cells called lymphocytes.

Lymphoma can develop in both adults and children. Below, we’ll dive into the different aspects of lymphoma in children, covering topics like symptoms, diagnostic tests, treatment, and outlook.

Here’s more information about lymphoma.

Cancer is rare in children overall. In fact, the American Cancer Society (ACS) predicted that 9,910 children in the United States would be newly diagnosed with any type of cancer in 2023.

Lymphoma is one of the most common childhood cancers. There are two main types of lymphoma, both of which can develop in children. These are Hodgkin lymphoma (HL) and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

Hodgkin lymphoma

HL makes up about 3% of childhood cancers. It typically starts in B lymphocytes (B cells). About 90% of diagnoses of HL are of a type called classic Hodgkin lymphoma.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma

NHL accounts for 5% of childhood cancers. It often grows quickly and can develop in T lymphocytes (T cells), B cells, or another type of white blood cell called NK cells. Some common types of NHL in children include:

The signs and symptoms of lymphoma in children can include:

“B symptoms” are certain features that help doctors in staging and determining outlook.

They include:

The exact cause of lymphoma in children is unknown. In general, cancers are caused by DNA changes that cause cells, such as lymphocytes, to begin to grow and divide uncontrollably.

DNA changes can be inherited from parents or acquired throughout life. Often, acquired DNA changes occur randomly due to mistakes that happen when cells divide.

There are some known risk factors for lymphoma in children. These include having:

Exposure to radiation, such as in the treatment of another childhood cancer, can also increase the chance of NHL in children.

To diagnose lymphoma, a doctor will take a thorough medical history, covering things like symptoms, family history, and preexisting health conditions. They’ll also do a physical exam, during which they’ll check for swollen lymph nodes.

A biopsy is the only way to confirm a diagnosis of lymphoma. Typically, a biopsy sample is taken from a lymph node. In some cases, the entire lymph node may be removed.

Analyzing a biopsy sample can detect the presence of lymphoma cells. If lymphoma is found, further testing can help determine the exact type of lymphoma.

Following diagnosis, the lymphoma will be staged. Staging determines the extent of the cancer in the body and affects both the treatment choices and outlook for lymphoma.

Additional tests that may help diagnose or stage lymphoma in your child include:

Doctors often use chemotherapy (chemo) to treat lymphoma in children and typically give a combination of chemo drugs. Sometimes, your child may receive other treatments like radiation therapy or targeted therapy alongside chemo.

If first-line treatments aren’t effective or the lymphoma comes back after treatment, a stem cell transplant may be recommended. This can help restore a healthy bone marrow, which would then generate healthy lymphocytes.

Regardless of the type of lymphoma your child has, the benefits and risks of different treatments must be carefully considered. Because children are still growing and developing, some cancer treatments can have lasting effects.

The outlook for lymphoma in children is generally quite positive. The National Cancer Institute notes that for individuals under the age of 20 years:

  • the 5-year overall survival rate for HL was 98% between the years of 2011 and 2017
  • the 5-year relative survival rate for NHL was 90% between the years 2012 and 2018

Many factors affect the outlook for children with lymphoma. These include:

  • the type of lymphoma
  • the stage of the lymphoma
  • where the lymphoma is in the body
  • the type of treatment and how the cancer responds to it
  • if the lymphoma is newly diagnosed or has come back after treatment
  • your child’s age and overall health

As noted above, because children are still growing and developing, certain cancer treatments can have an effect on their future health. These are called late effects.

The late effects of lymphoma treatment may include second cancers and fertility issues. Late effects from lymphoma treatment may also affect other areas of the body, including the heart, nervous system, and bones.

Is lymphoma in children curable?

Yes, many childhood lymphomas go away completely after treatment. However, it’s still possible for the cancer to recur (come back) in some people.

What is the common age for lymphoma in children?

The incidence of HL increases with age and is rare in children under age 5 years, according to the ACS. A 2021 publication notes that it’s the most common lymphoma in individuals ages 10–19 years and the most common cancer in adolescents ages 15–19 years.

The ACS also says NHL is more common in younger children than HL but is still rare in children under 3 years. The exact incidence of NHL can vary by type.

Can a child have lymphoma without knowing it?

Yes, it’s possible for a child to have lymphoma and not have any symptoms. This is particularly true if the lymphoma is growing slowly.

While cancer in children is rare, lymphoma is one of the most common types of cancer that can develop in children. It can be either HL or NHL.

The treatment of lymphoma in children typically involves chemo. However, your doctor may also give other treatments, such as radiation therapy, targeted therapy, or a stem cell transplant.

The outlook for lymphoma in children is typically positive. A variety of factors can influence outlook, such as the type of lymphoma and its stage. Be sure to talk with your child’s care team to get a better picture of their individual outlook.