While both women and men may experience the same classic symptoms of lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects your lymphatic system, women may have different symptoms if the lymphoma has developed in a reproductive organ.
Your lymphatic system, which includes your lymph glands, bone marrow, thymus gland, and spleen, is an essential part of your immune system. It distributes lymph fluids throughout your body that help fight infections.
When the cells in your lymphatic system become cancerous, these cancers are called lymphomas. What causes lymphomas is not known for certain.
Lymphoma affects a type of white blood cells called a lymphocyte. These blood cells help your immune system fight bacteria and viruses that can make you sick.
Lymphoma often begins in your lymph nodes, which are tubes that track your lymph fluid and destroy abnormal cells.
There are two main types of lymphoma:
- Hodgkin’s lymphoma (HL), also known as Hodgkin’s disease (HD), which causes lymphocytes to grow abnormally beyond your lymphatic system, usually starting in your upper body.
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), which causes tumors to grow from lymphocytes anywhere in your body.
The difference between these two types of lymphoma is that Reed-Sternberg cells, which are large cells in lymph fluid, are only present in HD.
Only 1.5% of NHL tumors begin in the reproductive organs, according to another case report published in 2018.
Both women and men may experience the following classic lymphoma symptoms.
Enlarged lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy)
Swollen lymph nodes or lymph glands are the most common lymphoma symptom. Groups of these small structures are located in your armpits (axillary), neck (cervical), chest, abdomen, and groin (inguinal).
When you have an infection, your lymph nodes become enlarged and tender as they fight it. When the infection goes away, your lymph nodes return to their normal size.
However, with lymphoma, your lymph nodes will enlarge but will not be as tender or painful as they would be when fighting an infection.
A low-grade fever that persists, or that comes and goes, could be a symptom of lymphoma rather than a bacterial or viral infection.
While it’s not unusual to feel fatigued due to overactivity or a lack of sleep, unexplained fatigue that persists and interferes with your daily activities may be a symptom of lymphoma, as well as other cancers and health conditions.
Although night sweats can often be caused by the flu or menopause, they are also a symptom of lymphoma. You may wake up drenched in sweat. You may experience heavy sweating during the daytime as well, but it’s not as common.
Unexplained weight loss
If you have suddenly lost weight without trying to, it could be a symptom of lymphoma as well as other health conditions.
A 33-year study looked at the medical records of patients diagnosed with NHL of the female genital tract. Results published in 2014 showed that just 17% of the patients experienced the above classic symptoms.
Instead, women may experience the
Pelvic pressure or pain
You may develop a mass in your pelvic area. If the mass is pressing on your nerves or other organs, it may cause pressure or pain in your pelvis or abdomen.
Abnormal uterine bleeding
If lymphoma starts in your uterus or cervix, you may experience abnormal bleeding during your period, or you may begin bleeding again after you’ve already gone through menopause.
Pain during sex (dyspareunia)
A pelvic mass can cause sex to be painful or uncomfortable.
See your doctor if you have any symptoms of lymphoma, especially if these symptoms persist or worsen. The earlier lymphoma can be diagnosed and treated, the better the outlook.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, such as:
- how long you’ve had them
- when you experience them
- their severity
Your doctor will do a physical examination to check for swollen lymph nodes and other signs. Your doctor may then order a computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, or X-rays that will further indicate and evaluate these signs.
The next step in diagnosing lymphoma is a biopsy. Your doctor may request the removal of an entire lymph node or a small lymph tissue sample. It will be sent to a lab and examined under a microscope.
If you are diagnosed with lymphoma, the treatment will depend on various factors, including:
- the type of lymphoma
- its stage, meaning how far it’s progressed in your body
- how quickly the cancer is spreading
For non-Hodgkin’s, radiation and chemotherapy may also be used, along with biological therapies that use antibodies to target affected B-cells. A bone marrow transplant may be performed to help strengthen your immune system.
There currently isn’t a treatment that specifically targets NHL affecting the reproductive organs.
Be sure to see your doctor if you have any symptoms of lymphoma that persist or get worse, such as swollen lymph nodes.
It’s also important to see your doctor if you’re experiencing pelvic pain or abnormal vaginal bleeding, since most women with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in their reproductive organs don’t experience classic NHL symptoms.
Although these symptoms are often caused by a less serious health condition, the sooner you begin treatment if you receive a lymphoma diagnosis, the better your outcome may be.