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Hodgkin Lymphoma Treatment & Management

  • Author: Bradley W Lash, MD; Chief Editor: Emmanuel C Besa, MD  more...
Updated: May 23, 2016

Approach Considerations

Treatment of Hodgkin lymphoma is tailored to disease type, disease stage, and an assessment of the risk of resistant disease. Hodgkin lymphoma is considered to be a curable malignancy, but therapies for this disease can have significant long-term toxicity. General treatment modalities include radiation therapy, induction chemotherapy, salvage chemotherapy, and hematopoietic stem cell transplantation.

The current treatment of Hodgkin lymphoma seeks to maximize the risk-benefit ratio of treatment. Thus, treatment focuses on tailoring therapy to each patient according to age, risk of short-term and long-term toxicity, and risk of relapse.

Short-term toxicity varies based on the regimen and modalities used (chemotherapy, radiation, combination of both, and stem cell transplantation) and include:

  • Hematologic toxicity: Anemia (need for transfusion), thrombocytopenia, increased risk of infection (febrile neutropenia)
  • Pulmonary toxicity, particularly if bleomycin or thoracic radiation are used
  • Cardiac toxicity from anthracycline therapy
  • Treatment-related toxicity that can lead to death

Long-term toxicities vary based on patient age and treatment regimen. In general, the older the patient, the less the concern for long-term toxicity. Long-term toxicities and monitoring are described in detail later, but include the following:

  • Hematologic: Development of treatment-related myelodyplasia or acute leukemia
  • Pulmonary: Increased risk of lung cancer or fibrotic lung disease, particularly in smokers
  • Cardiac: Congestive heart failure from treatment, increased risk of coronary artery disease
  • Infectious: Long-term increased risk of infection from splenectomy (rarely done in current practice), long-term immunodeficiency from treatment effects
  • Cancer: Increased risk of secondary cancers, particularly breast cancer in young women treated with mediastinal radiation; increased risk of sarcomas in radiation fields; increased risk of lung cancer in smokers
  • Neurologic: Chemotherapy-induced neuropathy, muscular atrophy
  • Psychiatric: Depression and anxiety related to diagnosis and complications from treatment

Given the curable nature of this disease and patients’ long-term survival, goals for treatment are the following:

  • Maximize cure for all stages
  • Minimize both short-term and long-term complications, assuming this does not have an impact on cure
  • Weigh the risks of toxicity (eg, elderly patients might not tolerate acute toxicities as well as younger patients, and given their prognosis from other conditions, aggressive treatment in seniors might not be indicated)

The overarching theme is assessing patients individually for their extent of disease, disease-related prognosis, associated conditions, risk of relapse, and long-term survival. By taking these factors into account, treatment can be tailored to each patient.

There are several examples of changes to treatment over the last several decades that illustrate these goals, such as the following:

  • Minimizing the number of cycles of chemotherapy used
  • Changing radiation fields to include only involved-field radiation
  • Enhancing surveillance for toxicity
  • Realizing that even relapsed disease can often be salvaged with stem cell transplantation, allowing for less intense treatments upfront

The above considerations apply mainly to classical Hodgkin lymphoma, but many of these principles can be applied to nodular lymphocyte-predominant Hodgkin lymphoma (NLPHL) as well. In general, NLPHL is clinically distinct from classical Hodgkin lymphoma in that NLPHL generally presents as early-stage disease that can be treated with local measures (surgery, radiation) or followed expectantly. However, some cases of NLPHL can transform to aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphomas that are treated using standard protocols. It is important to note the differences in immunophenotype; for example, NLPHL being CD20-positive allows for successful treatment with rituximab either alone or in combinations.

See also Hodgkin Lymphoma Treatment Protocols.

Clinical trials and consultations

Because of the limited number of patients with Hodgkin lymphoma and the importance of the clinical questions that remain about optimal disease management, patient involvement in clinical trials is strongly encouraged. It is also recommended that clinicians seek the following consultations in cases of Hodgkin lymphoma:

  • Hematologist/oncologist
  • Radiation oncologist
  • Social worker
  • Tertiary care center for consideration of clinical trial enrollment

NCCN, ESMO, International Harmonization Project Guidelines

Published guidelines from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN),[3] the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO),[4] and the International Harmonization Project[5] provide consensus opinions from leading experts on evidence-based approaches to the diagnosis and treatment of Hodgkin lymphoma.

The NCCN guidelines have more specific recommendations for response evaluation and follow-up than the ESMO guidelines, but are otherwise very similar. The International Harmonization Project published a set of revised response criteria for malignant lymphoma, including Hodgkin lymphoma, and recommendations for using positron-emission tomography (PET) scanning to monitor Hodgkin lymphoma.[35] Together, these three guidelines provide specific guidance for evaluating the response to disease therapy.

In general, the management of Hodgkin lymphoma depends on the subtype. Most clinicians divide classical Hodgkin lymphoma into the following three general groups:

  • Early-stage favorable
  • Early-stage unfavorable
  • Advanced-stage disease

However, favorable disease is defined differently by different groups. The two most commonly used definitions are that of the European Organization for the Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC) and the German Hodgkin Study Group (GHSG).

The EORTC definition uses the following patient criteria[38] :

  • Limited-stage disease
  • Age younger than 50 years
  • No bulky mediastinal adenopathy
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) less than 50 mm/h
  • No B symptoms (or an ESR <30 mm/h with B symptoms)
  • Three or fewer sites of involvement

The GHSG definition uses the following criteria[39] :

  • No more than two sites of disease
  • No extranodal extension
  • No bulky mediastinal disease
  • ESR <50 mm/h (or <30 mm/h if B symptoms present)

With either definition, any patient with early-stage disease who does not meet the above criteria is considered early-stage unfavorable. In general, early-stage favorable patients are treated with less intense chemotherapy and radiation regimens than those that are used for early-stage unfavorable disease.

Advanced-stage disease is generally treated with chemotherapy alone, with radiation therapy reserved for selected patients. (See Treatment).


Goals of Therapy and Response Assessment

Hodgkin lymphoma has gone from an incurable disease to one with a cure rate of almost 75%.[40] In general, the goal of therapy is to obtain complete remission.

Treatment response criteria are defined as follows:

  • Complete remission (CR): Disappearance of all evidence of disease as assessed by computed tomography (CT) scanning, positron-emission tomography (PET) scanning, history and physical examination, and bone marrow biopsy (if appropriate)
  • Partial response: Achievement of at least a 50% regression in sites of measurable disease and no new sites of disease
  • Stable disease: Failure to achieve either of the above criteria, but not meeting criteria for progressive disease
  • Progressive disease: Any new lesion or an increase from a nadir of at least 50% in a measurable lesion; if this occurs after a prior CR, it is called relapsed disease

The primary goal of therapy is achievement of a CR, but even in patients who fail to do so, there are effective salvage regimens available that can result in long-term survival or cure.[41]

Patients are assessed for response in various ways. Prior to each cycle of therapy, the patient is evaluated by a clinician who performs a history and physical examination. In addition, laboratory studies are usually obtained. In general, a CT scan is performed midway through the planned treatment to assess for response (particularly if there are no peripheral lesions that are assessable by physical examination).

There is increasing use of mid-treatment PET or combined PET/CT scans to help guide therapy. This is a controversial technique but has been accepted into widespread clinical practice. The current literature suggests that interim PET scanning (or PET/CT scanning) may provide prognostic information, but there are no data available from randomized trials to show that treatment should be changed based on the results of PET scanning.[42, 43]

Although the controversy of interim PET scanning exists as clinicians await clinical trial results, there are guidelines on when to obtain scans at the end of treatment. It is recommended that PET scans be obtained at least 6-8 weeks after completion of therapy. Some expert societies recommend waiting 8-12 weeks[35] because of the high-rate of false-positive scans.[44] If a scan is obtained, any positive result should lead to performance of a biopsy to confirm residual disease prior to altering therapy.[45, 35]


Radiation Therapy

For treatment of classical Hodgkin lymphoma, radiation therapy is often administered in combination with chemotherapy. However, such treatment is dependent on the disease stage and bulk as well as where the patient is being treated. Although the role of radiation is becoming increasingly controversial in the treatment of Hodgkin lymphoma, it is still used in many patients.

The radiation fields used in the treatment of Hodgkin lymphoma have evolved to maximize response while minimizing toxicity. Although there are several definitions of radiation fields, they are generally defined as follows:

  • Extended-field radiation (EFRT): Radiation that includes not only the clinically involved nodes but also the adjacent, clinically uninvolved nodes; this is called mantle-field or inverted-Y field; EFRT is not used in modern treatment of Hodgkin lymphoma
  • Involved-field radiation (IFRT): Radiation field that encompasses all of the clinically involved regions (eg, the mediastinum and the low-supraclavicular fields)
  • Involved-site radiation (ISRT): Radiation field that includes pre- and post-chemotherapy nodal volumes plus a 1.5-cm margin of healthy tissue
  • Involved-node radiation (INRT): Radiation field that includes pre- and post-chemotherapy nodal volumes plus a 1-cm margin of healthy tissue; there are increasing data to support this, but it is still considered experimental [46]

ISRT is largely replacing IFRT. Current NCCN and international guidelines recommend ISRT for Hodgkin lymphoma.[3, 47]

In addition to the field used, the dose of radiation is also changing. The standard is typically 30-40 Gy (administered in single, daily fractions of 1.8-2 Gy, 5 times/wk), with the option of a boost of 6 Gy to sites of concern.[48, 49, 50]


Induction Chemotherapy Regimens

The following induction regimens are given as initial treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma:

  • MOPP (mechlorethamine, vincristine, procarbazine, prednisone)
  • ABVD (Adriamycin [doxorubicin], bleomycin, vinblastine, dacarbazine)
  • Stanford V (doxorubicin, vinblastine, mustard, bleomycin, vincristine, etoposide, prednisone)
  • BEACOPP (bleomycin, etoposide, doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide, vincristine, procarbazine, prednisone)

All the medications in these regimens are given intravenously, except for prednisone and procarbazine, which are given orally.

The MOPP regimen was the first effective combination chemotherapy for Hodgkin lymphoma. This regimen is primarily of historical importance and is rarely used in current clinical practice, as it is less effective and more toxic than modern regimens.

The ABVD regimen is the standard of care for the treatment of classical Hodgkin lymphoma, particularly in the United States. ABVD is superior to MOPP in terms of disease-free survival (DFS) and has a lower incidence of sterility and secondary leukemia.[51]

The Stanford V regimen is a multidrug regimen with irradiation included as part of standard therapy.[52] The drugs are administered weekly, alternating myelosuppressive and nonmyelosuppressive agents, for 12 weeks. Involved-field radiation (IFRT) at the conclusion of the 12-week treatment is an important part of this regimen. A potential advantage of the Stanford V regimen is that its use of a broad spectrum of chemotherapy drugs can limit the exposure (and potential side effects) of any single drug. However, several studies have failed to show superiority over ABVD, and the latter regimen remains the standard.[53]

The BEACOPP regimen was developed in Germany and is their default standard regimen.[54] A dose-intensified version of BEACOPP (escalated BEACOPP), with higher doses of etoposide, doxorubicin, and cyclophosphamide and the addition of granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF) for neutrophil support, has also been developed and may be useful for unfavorable, advanced-stage Hodgkin lymphoma. However, escalated BEACOPP is associated with greater hematologic toxicity and a higher incidence of secondary malignancies, including acute myelogenous leukemia (AML).

A study by Viviani et al demonstrated that BEACOPP produced better initial outcomes in patients with advanced Hodgkin lymphoma than treatment with ABVD but found no significant long-term differences between the regimens.[55] A meta-analysis by Bauer et al found that patients aged 16-60 years with early unfavorable or advanced stage disease benefitted from escalated BEACOPP in terms of progression-free survival; however, no significant difference was noted in overall survival.[56]

More recently,  a randomized comparison study by Mounier et al in 150 low-risk patients with an International Prognostic Score (IPS) of 0-2, found that progression or relapses were more frequent with ABVD than BEACOPP (17 versus 5 patients, respectively).[57] In contrast, a randomized comparison study by Carde et al in 549 patients with high-risk stage III-IV Hodgkin lymphoma, and reported similar rates of event-free and overall survival with ABVD and BEACOPP; these authors stressed the importance of considering treatment burden, immediate and late toxicities, and associated costs when selecting a regimen.[58]

Induction chemotherapy schedules

The MOPP regimen is given every 28 days for six or more cycles, as follows:

  • Mechlorethamine: 6 mg/m 2, days 1 and 8
  • Vincristine: 1.4 mg/m 2, days 1 and 8
  • Procarbazine: 100 mg/m 2, days 1-14
  • Prednisone: 40 mg/m 2, days 1-14, cycles 1 and 4 only

The ABVD regimen is given every 28 days for six or more cycles, as follows:

  • Adriamycin: 25 mg/m 2, days 1, 15
  • Bleomycin: 10 mg/m 2, days 1, 15
  • Vinblastine: 6 mg/m 2, days 1, 15
  • Dacarbazine: 375 mg/m 2, days 1, 15

The Stanford V regimen is given as follows[59] :

  • Vinblastine: 6 mg/m 2, weeks 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11
  • Doxorubicin: 25 mg/m 2, weeks 1, 3, 5, 9, 11
  • Vincristine: 1.4 mg/m 2, weeks 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12
  • Bleomycin: 5 units/m 2, weeks 2, 4, 8, 10, 12
  • Mechlorethamine: 6 mg/m 2, weeks 1, 5, 9
  • Etoposide: 60 mg/m 2 twice daily, weeks 3, 7, 11
  • Prednisone: 40 mg/m 2, every other day, weeks 1-10, tapered weeks 11, 12
  • Radiation therapy to bulky sites 2-4 weeks following the end of chemotherapy

The escalated BEACOPP regimen is given every 3 weeks for eight cycles, as follows:

  • Bleomycin: 10 mg/m 2, day 8
  • Etoposide: 200 mg/m 2, days 1-3
  • Doxorubicin: 35 mg/m 2, day 1
  • Cyclophosphamide: 1,250 mg/m 2, day 1
  • Vincristine: 1.4 mg/m 2, day 8
  • Procarbazine: 100 mg/m 2, days 1-7
  • Prednisone: 40 mg/m 2, days 1-14

Salvage Chemotherapy Regimens

When induction chemotherapy fails, or patients experience relapse, salvage chemotherapy is generally given. Salvage regimens incorporate drugs that are complementary to those that failed during induction therapy. Commonly used salvage regimens include the following:

  • ICE (ifosfamide, carboplatin, etoposide)
  • DHAP (cisplatin, cytarabine, prednisone)
  • ESHAP (etoposide, methylprednisolone, cytarabine, cisplatin)

Salvage chemotherapy schedules

The ICE regimen is given as follows:

  • Ifosfamide: 5 g/m 2, day 2
  • Mesna: g/m 2, day 2
  • Carboplatin: AUC 5, day 2
  • Etoposide: 100 mg/m 2, days 1-3

The DHAP regimen is given as follows:

  • Cisplatin: 100 mg/m 2, day 1
  • Cytarabine: 2 g/m 2, given twice on day 2
  • Dexamethasone: 40 mg, days 1-4

Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation

High-dose chemotherapy (HDC) at doses that ablate the bone marrow is feasible with reinfusion of the patient's previously collected hematopoietic stem cells (autologous transplantation) or infusion of stem cells from a donor source (allogeneic transplantation). Patients with refractory or relapsed Hodgkin lymphoma should be promptly referred to centers capable of HDC with hematopoietic stem cell support.

Historically, hematopoietic stem cells have been obtained from bone marrow, but they are now typically obtained by pheresis of peripheral blood lymphocytes. A validated and relatively safe conditioning regimen for autologous transplantation is the BEAM regimen (carmustine [BCNU], etoposide, cytarabine, melphalan).[6] In addition, Gayoso et al reported success with unmanipulated haploidentical related-donor transplant with a busulfan-based reduced conditioning regimen and post-transplant cyclophosphamide as prophylaxis against graft versus host disease.[60]

Myeloablative chemotherapy

High-dose therapy, which requires hematopoietic stem cell support for recovery, is given according to the BEAM regimen. Different schedules for BEAM exist that vary primarily in the dose of etoposide administered. The following is the version used by Schmitz et al in a key randomized, prospective clinical trial[6] :

  • BCNU 300 mg/m 2, day –7
  • Etoposide 150 mg/m 2, every 12 hours, total of 8 doses, days –7 to –4
  • Cytarabine 200 mg/m 2, every 12 hours, total of 8 doses, days –7 to –4
  • Melphalan 140 mg/m 2, day –3

Following this chemotherapy regimen, autologous hematopoietic stem cells are administered on day 0.

Brentuximab vedotin is indicated as consolidation therapy following autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) in patients with classic Hodgkin lymphoma who are at at high risk of relapse or progression. Approval for this indication was based on the AETHERA clinical trial, in which median progression-free survival was 42.9 months in the brentuximab group versus 24.1 months in the placebo group, a statistically significant improvement of 18.8 months (P=0.001).[61]

The regimen is initiated 4-6 weeks after autologous HSCT as 1.8 mg/kg IV (not to exceed 180 mg/dose) infused over 30 minutes three times weekly for up to 16 cycles, or until disease progression or unacceptable toxicity.[23]


Treatment of Early-Stage, Low-Risk Disease

Patients with clinical stages IA or IIA classical Hodgkin lymphoma who do not have unfavorable factors (ie, bulky mediastinal or >10 cm disease, elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate [ESR] >50 [or ESR >30 with B symptoms], more than three sites of involvement, extranodal disease) are categorized as having early-stage, low-risk disease.[62, 63]

The treatment of these patients requires an individualized approach that provides enough therapy to eradicate the disease and avoid the long-term toxicity of treatment. Despite the existence of guidelines for the treatment, there must be room for individualized treatment, based on weighing of the benefits of therapy versus long-term toxicity.

In general, early-stage favorable Hodgkin lymphoma is treated with combined chemotherapy and radiation; however, there may be a role for chemotherapy alone. Randomized trials have shown that compared with radiation alone, combination chemotherapy followed by radiation is superior in terms of survival.[64]

The most commonly used regimen is ABVD (Adriamycin [doxorubicin], bleomycin, vinblastine, dacarbazine) for 2-4 cycles followed by involved-site radiation therapy (ISRT) (usually to 30 Gy). This regimen is the default regimen in the United States.

Current National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) guidelines give two cycles of the ABVD regimen a category 1 rating (ie, the recommendation is based on high-level evidence and uniform NCCN consensus that the intervention is appropriate), but list the Stanford V regimen as an alternative.[3] Direct comparisons of ABVD with the Stanford V regimen in early-stage favorable disease have not been reported to date.

The number of chemotherapy cycles and doses of radiation vary based on patient population. The German Hodgkin Study Group (GHSG) HD10 trial evaluated patients with early-stage favorable disease (defined as no more than two sites of disease, no extranodal extension, no bulky mediastinal disease, and ESR <50 [or <30 with B symptoms]) by looking at the following four different combinations[39] :

  • ABVD x 4 cycles, followed by IFRT 30 Gy
  • ABVD x 4 cycles, followed by IFRT 20 Gy
  • ABVD x 2 cycles, followed by IFRT 30 Gy
  • ABVD x 2 cycles, followed by IFRT 20 Gy

This study showed no difference in overall survival, freedom from treatment failure, and progression-free survival among the groups, but it did show significantly less toxicity in the lower chemotherapy and radiation arm.[39] The results suggested that ABVD for two cycles followed by IFRT 20 Gy is an acceptable treatment for patients with early-stage disease.

The question as to whether radiation therapy is needed after combination chemotherapy in the treatment of early-stage disease is a matter of debate. When the largest trial to date (NCIC/Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group [ECOG] HD6 trial) examined ABVD alone versus ABVD followed by radiation in patients with early-stage Hodgkin lymphoma, the investigators reported that the chemotherapy alone arm had superior overall survival based on less late toxicity.[65] However, whether these results are applicable to patients treated on modern protocols with ISRT is unknown.

As discussed under Goals of Therapy and Response Assessment, there is increasing use of mid-treatment positron-emission tomography (PET) scans to guide therapy. The 2016 NCCN guidelines recommend restaging after chemotherapy with PET–computed tomography (CT), including diagnostic CT of areas of initial disease.[3]

However, although it is clear that such scans have prognostic value, it remains unclear whether altering therapy based on PET scan results improves treatment outcomes.[66, 67] The current data support the monitoring of patients with history and physical examination prior to administering each cycle or modality of treatment and prior to obtaining laboratory studies and CT scans. Some experts suggest that PET scans should not be used to alter therapy outside of a clinical trial.


Treatment of Early-Stage Disease with Unfavorable Factors

Patients with early-stage disease and unfavorable prognostic factors (eg, more than three sites of disease, bulky mediastinal disease, elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate [ESR], extranodal extension) are classified as having early-stage unfavorable Hodgkin lymphoma. These individuals are treated differently than early-stage favorable patients. In general, four to six cycles of chemotherapy are given followed by involved-site radiation therapy (ISRT).

The preferred regimen is ABVD (Adriamycin [doxorubicin], bleomycin, vinblastine, dacarbazine), although other regimens are acceptable, including Stanford V and dose-escalated BEACOPP (bleomycin, etoposide, doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide, vincristine, procarbazine, prednisone). It should be noted that these regimens are chosen not because they have been proven to be superior in managing early-stage disease; rather, they are an extrapolation from treatment of advanced disease, in which ABVD has been shown to have superior outcomes.[68]

At least two trials have compared therapy with escalated-BEACOPP versus ABVD in early-stage, unfavorable Hodgkin lymphoma.[56] These trials have shown that there does not appear to be a benefit to the use of dose-escalated BEACOPP relative to four cycles of ABVD. In addition, the toxicity was greater with BEACOPP therapy.[56] The results of these studies suggest that ABVD for four cycles followed by 30 Gy of IFRT is the current standard of care.

Similarly, in another study that examined alternating dose-escalated BEACOPP with ABVD versus ABVD alone with both regimens followed by IFRT, the escalated-BEACOPP regimen failed not only to show a survival advantage to the dose-intense regimen but also showed increased toxicity.[69]

It is a matter of debate as to whether chemotherapy alone can be used in patients with unfavorable disease. As noted, the only trial completed to date, the HD6 trial, did include patients with unfavorable Hodgkin lymphoma.[65] Given the flaws in design, particularly the use of outdated radiation therapy, the conclusions are limited. Regardless, chemotherapy alone may be an option for early-stage unfavorable patients without bulky disease.

Patients with early-stage disease with bulky mediastinal disease are treated differently than those with early-stage unfavorable disease without bulky mediastinal disease. In the United States, these individuals are usually treated with ABVD for 4-6 cycles, followed by ISRT at 36 Gy.[70]

Currently, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) supports the following treatments[3] :

  • Early-stage unfavorable, no bulky mediastinal disease: ABVD regimen for two cycles (initially with staging and additional ABVD cycles as warranted) or  Stanford V regimen or escalated BEACOPP for two cycles + ABVD for two cycles +ISRT
  • Early-stage unfavorable, with bulky mediastinal disease: ABVD for four cycles followed by ISRT (category 1 recommendation) or  Stanford V regimen for three cycles (12 weeks) + ISRT or escalated BEACOPP for two cycles + ABVD for two cycles +ISRT

Ongoing trials will determine if irradiation is needed. Currently, radiation is an important part of therapy, and it is mandatory if using the Stanford V regimen.

In addition, as with early-stage favorable Hodgkin lymphoma, there is controversy regarding the role of interim positron emission tomography (PET) scanning. As with early-stage favorable disease, the NCCN endorses the use of PET scanning for restaging. How this impacts survival is not known, but mid-treatment PET scanning remains an option. If this imaging modality is performed, biopsy of positive sites is mandatory before changing treatment.


Treatment of Advanced Disease

Patients are considered to have advanced Hodgkin lymphoma if they demonstrate stage III or IV disease. Chemotherapy is the mainstay of therapy, with radiation reserved for initial bulky sites or residual activity on positron emission tomography (PET) scans, but even in these situations, the role of radiation remains an area of debate. When patients present with advanced disease, they are staged as outlined in Staging, and their prognosis is determined by calculation of the International Prognostic System (IPS) (see Prognosis).

The most commonly used regimen, and one endorsed by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), is ABVD (Adriamycin [doxorubicin], bleomycin, vinblastine, dacarbazine).[3, 71, 72] The drugs are administered every 14 days, with one cycle consisting of two administrations. This regimen is most commonly given for up to six cycles (12 doses of chemotherapy), although, occasionally, eight cycles are used. It is important to give the doses as planned (maintenance of dose intensity), and it should be noted that afebrile neutropenia is not a reason to withhold therapy.[73]

There is some suggestion in the literature that granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (GCSF) may increase rates of bleomycin lung injury, but this has not been confirmed.[74] In fact, the largest series in patients with germ-cell tumors did not show an increased risk of bleomycin lung injury with GCSF use.[75]

ABVD will result in complete remission (CR) in approximately 80% of patients treated, and up to one quarter of patients will have progressive disease-requiring salvage therapy (see below).[51]

An alternative regimen, escalated BEACOPP (bleomycin, etoposide, doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide, vincristine, procarbazine, prednisone), is recommended by the NCCN for patients with a poor prognosis, as indicated by an International Prognostic Score (IPS) of 4 or higher.[54] Four cycles of escalated BEACOPP are given, with slow responders receiving four additional cycles.[3]

Escalated BEACOPP has CR rates of up to 95% in some trials,[76] but whether this is superior to ABVD therapy in an era with effective salvage is not known.[55, 56] However, adjustments in the delivery of BEACOPP including a reduced number of cycles has proven to be equally effective as the original schedule but with less toxicity[77] . Again, these modifications have not been compared to ABVD.

For patients with an IPS score of less than 3, the NCCN suggests use of the Stanford V regimen.[3] This regimen is used by some clinicians because of its decreased length of treatment and decreased doses of agents. Initial single-institution studies showed impressive results,[78] but subsequent randomized trials have not shown superiority over ABVD.[79]

Although these data suggest that ABVD remain the standard treatment for most patients, the Stanford V regimen may be appropriate for those patients in whom lower doses of bleomycin and doxorubicin are desired, or in those in whom radiation is going to be administered regardless of therapy response.

Beyond chemotherapy, there is even more controversy regarding the role of radiation in advanced Hodgkin lymphoma. The majority of data to date suggest that radiation improves progression-free survival but without improving overall survival.[80, 81] When administered after ABVD or BEACOPP, radiation probably adds little benefit to the majority of patients.[16, 82] One exception may be those patients with bulky mediastinal disease—which is known to be a poor prognostic marker—whose outcomes may be improved with radiation.[83] It must be noted that if the Stanford V regimen is used, then radiation is an integral part of the regimen and must be given.

As noted in early-stage disease, the role of PET scanning as interim staging in Hodgkin lymphoma is a matter of debate. The NCCN currently recommends interim PET scanning in determining the number of treatment cycles, but this recommendation is based more on opinion than direct evidence. As discussed previously, if PET scanning shows residual disease, then a biopsy should be done prior to changing planned therapy. Furthermore, attempts to improve outcomes in high-risk advanced-stage disease with early autologous stem cell transplantation have not been shown to be superior to combination chemotherapy[84] and should not be undertaken outside of a clinical trial.

In general, the following guidelines may be helpful when treating advanced-stage Hodgkin lymphoma:

  • Advanced stage without bulky disease: ABVD for six (occasionally eight) cycles, no routine radiation therapy. Acceptable alternatives would be BEACOPP or Stanford V
  • Advanced stage bulky disease: ABVD for six cycles with involved-field radiation therapy to original sites of bulky disease (generally 30-36 Gy). Acceptable alternatives would be BEACOPP or Stanford V

Treatment of Nodular Lymphocyte-Predominant Hodgkin Lymphoma

Early-stage NLPHL can be treated with local excision, involved-field radiation therapy (IFRT), or expectant management (close observation).[85] Advanced-stage disease may represent histologic transformation to T-cell-rich B-cell lymphoma (TCR-BCL) or diffuse large cell B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL), both of which should be treated with a typical non-Hodgkin regimen such as R-CHOP (rituximab, cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, vincristine, prednisone).

Rituximab is a humanized monoclonal antibody that is specific for CD20, a cell-surface antigen expressed by the malignant lymphocytic and histiocytic (L&H) cells in NLPHL. It is a promising agent that has shown activity in NLPHL. On long-term follow-up, the German Hodgkin Lymphoma Study Group observed a 94% overall response rate, with 8 complete remissions, from their population of 15 patients treated with rituximab for relapsed/refractory NLPHL.[86] The use of rituximab in NLPHL, especially in early-stage disease, should ideally be pursued in the context of a clinical trial.

A phase 2 study by Eichenauer et al found that results with rituximab appear inferior when compared with radiotherapy and combined-modality treatment in patients with early-stage NLPHL. However, the authors concluded that investigation of anti-CD20 antibody–based combinations in patients with NLPHL is indicated.[87]

An era-to-era comparison between ABVD treatment and radiotherapy alone found that treating limited-stage NLPHL similar to classical Hodgkin lymphoma may improve outcome compared with the use of radiation alone.[88]


Treatment in HIV-Infected Patients

In patients with advanced Hodgkin lymphoma and HIV infection, the results with standard chemotherapy can be dramatically improved by simultaneous treatment with highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). Such therapy generally involves three drugs: two nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) combined with a protease inhibitor, a non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor (non-NRTI), or a viral fusion inhibitor.


Treatment of Refractory or Relapsed Disease

Patients with Hodgkin lymphoma who have never entered complete remission (CR), or whose disease has relapsed after the attainment of CR, have a very poor prognosis when treated with standard chemotherapy and radiation. Therefore, high-dose chemotherapy with autologous stem cell transplantation is recommended for these patients.[89]

In this procedure, salvage chemotherapy is first administered to help reduce the size of the persistent disease and obtain CR, if possible. The number of cycles to be administered depends on how well the disease is responding to therapy. An optimal situation is one in which the disease enters CR with negative positron emission tomography (PET) scan findings, although one study demonstrated that patients may achieve long-term disease-free survival even if their condition has little or no response.[90]

Following one of the cycles of salvage chemotherapy, hematopoietic stem cells are collected from the peripheral blood by leukapheresis and are stored frozen. Following the administration of myeloablative chemotherapy (eg, BEAM), the stored hematopoietic stem cells are thawed and reinfused into the patient to facilitate hematopoietic recovery. High-dose chemotherapy (HDC) with autologous stem cell transplantation can provide better than 50% long-term, progression-free survival for patients with relapses, although specific predicted outcomes vary widely depending on patient-specific risk factors.

Many questions relating to salvage and HDC therapy for patients with Hodgkin lymphoma need to be addressed and are the subject of ongoing clinical trials. These include the following:

  • The optimal salvage regimen or regimens
  • The ideal conditioning regimen or regimens
  • The potential benefits of twin transplants compared with single transplants
  • How to prospectively identify those patients who are unlikely to benefit from HDC and how to best manage their disease

In some cases in which HDC fails, allogeneic stem cell transplantation may be a viable option. In this method, myeloablative therapy (chemotherapy and sometimes radiation therapy) is followed by the infusion of hematopoietic stem cells from a genetically matched donor.[91] This offers the potential for an immunologic antitumor effect from T cells provided by the hematopoietic stem cell donor, which may improve the chances for cure of the disease.

Historically, allogeneic stem cell transplantation for Hodgkin lymphoma has been considered too high-risk for most patients, due to high transplant-related mortality. However, new transplant protocols use less toxic conditioning regimens and may be safer and more effective for patients with refractory Hodgkin lymphoma.[92]

Brentuximab vedotin was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in August 2011 for treatment of patients with Hodgkin lymphoma after failure of autologous stem cell transplantation or after failure of at least two prior multi-agent chemotherapy regimens in patients who are not candidates for a stem cell transplant. This agent is a CD30-directed antibody-drug conjugate consisting of IgG1 antibody cAC10, specific for human CD30, and the microtubule disrupting agent, monomethyl auristatin E (MMAE, or vedotin).[93]

Results from a study of patients with Hodgkin lymphoma in whom autologous stem cell transplantation and a median of four chemotherapy regimens had failed (n = 102) showed that 73% (95% confidence interval [CI], 65-83%) achieved an objective response to brentuximab vedotin therapy, including 32% with complete remission (95% CI, 23-42%) and 40% with partial remission (95% CI, 32-49%). Response duration averaged 6.7 months (range, 1.3-21.9 months).[94]

Current NCCN guidelines recommend brentuximab vedotin as maintenance therapy for 1 year after high-dose therapy with autologous stem cell rescue (HDT/ASCR). In addition, in selected patients, brentuximab vedotin can be used as second-line therapy prior to HDT/ASCR to minimize the use of more intensive chemotherapy.[3]

In May 2016, the FDA approved the monoclonal antibody nivolumab for the treatment of classical  Hodgkin lymphoma that has relapsed or progressed after autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) and posttransplantation brentuximab vedotin. Approval was based on a combination of the phase 2 CheckMate 205 and phase 1 CheckMate 039 trials with an efficacy analysis conducted on data from 95 patients. Treatment with nivolumab showed an objective response rate (ORR) of 65% (CI 95%: 55-75; 62/95), a complete response rate of 7% (CI 95%: 3-15; 7/95), and a partial response rate of 58% (CI 95%: 47-68; 55/95). Among responders, the median duration of response was 8.7 months (CI 95%: 6.8-NE; range 0.0+, 23.1+).[95, 96]



Complications of Therapy

Cardiac disease

Mantle radiotherapy increases the risk the risk of coronary artery disease, chronic pericarditis, pancarditis, valvular heart disease, and defects in the conduction system.[97, 98] Patients with history of mediastinal radiation have a 3-fold increase in their risk of cardiac death.

A study of patients who had previously undergone mediastinal irradiation for Hodgkin lymphoma but who had no clinical evidence of heart disease demonstrated a significant incidence of silent coronary artery obstruction and previous ventricular damage.[99] Based on these results, it is reasonable to initiate functional screening 5 years after XRT in patients with Hodgkin lymphoma.

Pulmonary disease

The ABVD regimen contains bleomycin, a drug associated with dose-related pulmonary toxicity, mainly interstitial pneumonitis, which may lead to fibrosis. The addition of mantle irradiation enhances lung injury. Pulmonary symptoms, such as cough or dyspnea on exertion, are observed in 50% of patients. Declining pulmonary function is observed in approximately one third of patients during ABVD chemotherapy, with or without radiation therapy. This may necessitate dose reductions or even discontinuation of bleomycin.

Although acute toxicity is common, the incidence of severe long-term pulmonary toxicity is low. Fatal pulmonary toxicity has been reported in up to 2-3% of patients treated with the ABVD regimen.

Secondary cancers

Secondary leukemias and solid tumors are significant causes of morbidity and mortality for patients who have received early therapies, including the MOPP regimen and mantle radiation therapy. With modern therapies that emphasize the widespread use of the ABVD and Stanford V regimens and the application of radiation to involved fields only, the incidence of secondary cancers is expected to be much lower.

The most common secondary malignancy following treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma is lung cancer. Both chemotherapy with alkylating agents and irradiation are associated with a 10-fold increased relative risk of lung cancer. Smoking can further increase the risk. In addition, retrospective data have suggested that survival is worse in Hodgkin lymphoma survivors who develop lung cancer compared with matched cohorts with de novo lung cancer.[100]

Myelodysplastic syndromes acute myelogenous leukemia (MDS/AML) is a particular concern. In the Stanford case series, the projected risk for developing MDS/AML over a follow-up period of 35 years was 2%, and the relative risk compared with matched controls was 38%. The MOPP regimen is associated with an approximately 5% incidence of MDS/AML. With the ABVD regimen the risk is lower, less than 1%.

MDS/AML is usually seen in the first 3-8 years following treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma; subsequently, the risk appears to decline. These findings are consistent with the biology of secondary leukemias following alkylator therapy. MDS/AML usually develops in the context of an MDS with cytogenetic abnormalities in chromosomes 5 and/or 7. Exposure to alkylating agents (eg, the mechlorethamine used in the MOPP regimen) has been implicated.

Exposure to epipodophyllotoxins (etoposide and teniposide) may also result in AML, which generally develops within 3 years and is associated with chromosomal abnormalities at band 11q23.

Breast cancer is 19 times more likely to occur in patients treated with mantle radiation therapy when they are younger than 30 years. If female patients are exposed to chest radiation therapy when they are younger than 15 years, this relative risk increases to 136. MOPP chemotherapy also produces an increased risk for breast cancer when combined with XRT.

Patients in the Stanford case series were also found to have increased risks of developing a variety of other cancers. These include melanoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, soft-tissue sarcoma, salivary gland cancers, pancreatic cancers, and thyroid cancers.

A study by Swerdlow et al found that the risk of second malignancy from chemotherapy alone is lower and affects fewer anatomic sites than combined treatment modalities. The authors concluded the risk of second malignancy was slight after 15 years.[101]

Taken in aggregate, these trial results suggest that altering the treatment paradigms of Hodgkin lymphoma to maximize curability while preventing long-term complications should be a focus of ongoing research. Using the least amount of therapy required to cure the disease and minimize complications should be the goal. Early results have suggested that modification of treatment is feasible and have shown some decreased rates of secondary cancers.[102]


The degree of infertility varies widely with the regimen used. MOPP chemotherapy causes permanent infertility in at least 80% of males and approximately 50% of females.[101] The escalated BEACOPP regimen results in infertility in nearly 100% of patients treated.[102] The ABVD and Stanford V regimens pose a lower risk of permanent sterility than regimens that contain an alkylating agent (eg, MOPP chemotherapy).[103]

The EORTC Lymphoma Group reported an 82% rate of recovery of fertility in male patients who were treated without alkylating agents.[104] Given the overall excellent prognosis of Hodgkin lymphoma and the early age of onset, it is important to keep fertility preservation in mind when designing treatment plans for these patients. Options include sperm banking for men and various pharmacologic treatments for women including gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonists, ovarian stimulation, and egg preservation.

Infectious complications

Although not commonly performed, patients who have undergone splenectomy are predisposed to bacterial sepsis secondary to encapsulated microorganisms (especially Streptococcus pneumoniae). Empiric antibiotic therapy should be instituted promptly in patients who have undergone splenectomy and present with fever.

Influenza vaccination annually may help to reduce the incidence and/or complications of influenza in patients who have received bleomycin or chest radiation therapy.

Herpes zoster usually appears in previously irradiated dermatomes, but this condition may also occur in patients who have not been irradiated.

Other complications

Lhermitte syndrome (an electric-shock sensation that radiates along the back and legs upon flexion of the neck) can occur in approximately 15% of patients after mantle irradiation. Lhermitte syndrome is not associated with the development of radiation myelitis, and it does not require treatment. This syndrome may last for many months, but it will eventually resolve without long-term sequelae.

Elevation of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) occurs in one-third of adult patients after neck/mediastinal radiation therapy.

Survivors of Hodgkin lymphoma have an increased incidence of fatigue, psychiatric distress (anxiety, depression), employment problems, family issues, and sexual functioning problems, as compared to individuals without this disease or relative to survivors of acute leukemia.[105, 106]


Long-Term Monitoring

Both the National Comprehensive Cancer Network[3] and the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO)[4] guidelines provide recommendations for the long-term follow-up of treated patients with Hodgkin lymphoma who are in complete remission.[3, 4] Most relapses occur in the first 3 years after therapy, and Hodgkin lymphoma is the main cause of mortality in the first 10-15 years of follow-up.[107] Follow-up visits are recommended every 2-4 months for the first 1-2 years and every 3-6 months for the next 3-5 years.

Follow-up examinations include the following[107] :

  • History and physical examination
  • Complete blood cell count and chemistry panel, including lactate dehydrogenase (LDH), erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), glucose, and lipid levels
  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) levels (at least annually if the patient has had neck radiation therapy)
  • Chest x-ray or CT scans of the chest every 6-12 months in the first 2-5 years
  • Abdominal and pelvic CT scans may be added every 6-12 months in the first 2-3 years, especially if the disease originally occurred below the diaphragm

After 5 years, the NCCN recommends the following surveillance schedule[3] :

  • Annual history and physical examination
  • Annual blood pressure
  • Aggressive management of cardiovascular risk factors
  • Pneumococcal, meningococcal, and Haemophilus influenzae revaccination after 5–7 y, if the patient received splenic irradiation or splenectomy
  • Annual influenza vaccine
  • Consider stress test/echocardiogram at 10-y intervals after treatment completion
  • Consider carotid ultrasound at 10-y intervals if the patient underwent neck irradiation
  • Annual CBC, platelets, and chemistry profile
  • TSH at least annually if the patient underwent neck irradiation
  • Biannual lipid levels
  • Annual fasting glucose study
  • Low-dose chest CT scans may be considered in patients at increased risk for lung cancer
  • Female patients who have received chest irradiation should be screened annually with mammography, starting at age 40 years or 5-8 years following the radiation therapy; however, the American Cancer Society also recommends breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for patients who received chest radiation therapy between the ages of 10 and 30 years [108]

Use of PET scans for surveillance in patients with complete remission is specifically not encouraged by the NCCN, due to the possibility of false-positive results.

Lung injury may result from mantle irradiation or ABVD chemotherapy. Baseline tests and follow-up evaluation with pulmonary function tests are recommended. The best parameter to follow is the carbon monoxide diffusion capacity.

Prominent goals in the follow-up of survivors of Hodgkin lymphoma include the following[107] :

  • Identify secondary cancers in a timely manner
  • Consider sepsis as a possible cause for fever in a splenectomized patient
  • Diagnose and treat predictable complications of Hodgkin lymphoma treatment, such as coronary artery, pulmonary, or thyroid disease
Contributor Information and Disclosures

Bradley W Lash, MD Associate in Hematology/Oncology, Department of Internal Medicine, The Guthrie Clinic; Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine, State University of New York Upstate Medical University

Bradley W Lash, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American College of Physicians, American Society of Hematology, American Society of Clinical Oncology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Athanassios Argiris, MD Professor, Division of Hematology-Oncology, Department of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

Athanassios Argiris, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for Cancer Research, American College of Physicians, American Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Emmanuel C Besa, MD Professor Emeritus, Department of Medicine, Division of Hematologic Malignancies and Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation, Kimmel Cancer Center, Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University

Emmanuel C Besa, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for Cancer Education, American Society of Clinical Oncology, American College of Clinical Pharmacology, American Federation for Medical Research, American Society of Hematology, New York Academy of Sciences

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Scott K Dessain, MD, PhD Associate Professor, Lankenau Institute for Medical Research

Disclosure: Genentech Speaker's bureau.

Virginia Kaklamani, MD, Fellow, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Hematology-Oncology, Northwestern University Medical School

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Koyamangalath Krishnan, MD, FRCP, FACP Paul Dishner Endowed Chair of Excellence in Medicine, Professor of Medicine and Chief of Hematology-Oncology, James H Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University

Koyamangalath Krishnan, MD, FRCP, FACP is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine, American Society of Hematology, and Royal College of Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

James L Spears, MD Consulting Staff, Bux-Mont Hematology Oncology Medical Associates

James L Spears, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Society of Clinical Oncology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment

Christine Wasilewski, MD, MPH, Fellow, Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology-Oncology, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Micrograph of Hodgkin lymphoma in a fine-needle aspiration lymph node specimen (field stain). Eosinophils, Reed-Sternberg cells, plasma cells, and histocytes can be seen.
Nodular sclerosing Hodgkin lymphoma of the mediastinum. The diagnosis is strongly suggested by the presence of distinct nodules on the cut surface of this lymph node.
A Reed-Sternberg cell in Hodgkin lymphoma. Reed-Sternberg cells are large, abnormal lymphocytes that may contain more than one nucleus. Image courtesy of National Cancer Institute.
Mixed cellularity Hodgkin lymphoma showing both mononucleate and binucleate Reed-Sternberg cells in a background of inflammatory cells (hematoxylin and eosin, original magnification x200).
Very high magnification micrograph of nodular lymphoctye predominant Hodgkin lymphoma (NLPHL), with a popcorn-shaped Reed-Sternberg cell (hematoxylin and eosin).
A positron emission tomography (PET) scan obtained with fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG) that shows increased FDG uptake in a mediastinal lymph node.
A computed tomography (CT) scan showing bulk disease in a patient with Hodgkin lymphoma.
This computed tomography scan is from a 46-year patient with Hodgkin lymphoma at the level of the neck. Enlarged lymph nodes are visible on the left side of the neck (red-shaded region).
This image depicts a computed tomography (CT) scan, positron-emission tomography (PET) scan, and maximum intensity projection (MIP) PET scan from a patient with histologically proven Hodgkin lymphoma.
Table 1. Stage Distribution and 5-Year Relative Survival by Stage at Diagnosis for All Races and Both Sexes: 2006-2012
Stage at Diagnosis Stage Distribution, % 5-year Relative Survival, %
Localized (confined to primary site) 16 91.5
Regional (spread to regional lymph nodes) 40 93.1
Distant (cancer has metastasized) 39 77.3
Unstaged 4 81.9
Source:  National Cancer Institute. SEER stat fact sheets: Hodgkin lymphoma. Available at: Accessed: May 19, 2016
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