Lymphomas of the Head and Neck

Updated: Mar 03, 2022
Author: Jordan W Rawl, MD; Chief Editor: Arlen D Meyers, MD, MBA 


Practice Essentials

A quarter of all extranodal lymphomas occur in the head and neck, and 8% of findings on supraclavicular fine-needle aspirate biopsy yield a diagnosis of lymphoma. Lymphoma is the second most common primary malignancy occurring in the head and neck. Nasopharyngeal laryngoscopy, fine-needle aspiration cytology, excision lymph-node biopsy (in Hodgkin lymphoma [HL] and non-Hodgkin lymphoma [NHL]), and bone marrow aspiration and biopsy are essential in the workup of patients with head and neck lymphomas. ABVD, a regimen of doxorubicin (Adriamycin), bleomycin, vinblastine, and dacarbazine, is considered the standard of care in HL

Treatment for NHL is based on the type of disease and involves combination therapy or targeted therapies derived from the immunohistochemistry of the tumor. Radiation is frequently used in the treatment of HL and NHL.

Risk factors for HL include immunodeficiency and Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) exposure. Risk factors for NHL include immunodeficiency, exposures to chemicals such as glyphosate (eg, Roundup weed killer),[1] radiation treatment or chemotherapy, and infections with EBV, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis C virus, Helicobacter pylori, human T-lymphotropic virus 1, or human herpesvirus 8. Patients with HL have a bimodal age distribution, whereas patients with NHL are usually older than 60 years. 

See the image below.

CT scan of a patient with a natural killer (NK)/T- CT scan of a patient with a natural killer (NK)/T-cell lymphoma of the right nasal cavity and maxillary sinus.

Signs and symptoms

Lymphoma may be nodal or extranodal. Common symptoms include the following:

  • Nodal presentation of HL - 1 or more small-to-medium, rubbery lymph nodes in the neck, which may wax or wane in size but grow over time

  • NHL - Mass in the oropharynx or nasopharynx

  • Extranodal natural killer (NK)/T-cell lymphoma, nasal type - Ulcerative destructive lesion of the nose, sinuses, and face

  • Lymphoma in the thyroid - Neck swelling, hoarseness, dysphagia, or neck pressure/tenderness

  • Constitutional symptoms (B symptoms) - These may occur in up to one third of patients with lymphoma

Full otorhinolaryngologic and neck examination, including fiberoptic examination, in addition to complete physical examination, is indicated. Physical findings that may be noted include the following:

  • Painless or mildly tender peripheral adenopathy in cervical, axillary, inguinal, and femoral regions

  • Superior vena cava syndrome and pleural effusions (from a mediastinal mass)

  • A large, asymptomatic abdominal mass in some patients with indolent NHL

See Presentation for more details. See also 10 Patients with Neck Masses: Identifying Malignant versus Benign, a Critical Images slideshow, to help identify several types of masses.


The following laboratory studies may be warranted:

  • Complete blood count

  • Serum chemistries (including calcium, phosphate, and uric acid)

  • Liver function tests (including measurement of lactate dehydrogenase)

  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (in HL)

  • HIV and hepatitis B and C viral panels (encouraged)

  • Pregnancy test in females of childbearing age

The following imaging studies may be warranted:

  • Chest radiography (essential)

  • Computed tomography (CT) scanning with contrast enhancement of the chest, abdomen, or pelvis (necessary for mediastinal, retroperitoneal, and mesenteric adenopathy)

  • CT scanning of the head and neck (mandatory for a head and neck presentation; localized disease; or cranial neuropathies, hearing loss, vertigo, or visual changes)

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI; indicated for evaluating the brain or spinal cord)

  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scanning

Other tests to be considered include the following:

  • Immunohistochemical analysis of the tumor (essential)

  • Cytogenetic analysis (useful in select cases)

  • Polymerase chain reaction analysis

  • Fluorescent in-situ hybridization

  • C-MYC, BCL2, and BCL6 translocation testing 

The following procedures may be helpful:

  • Nasopharyngeal laryngoscopy (essential)

  • Fine-needle aspiration cytology (essential)

  • Excisional lymph-node biopsy (essential in HL and NHL)

  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy (essential).

  • Lumbar puncture and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis

  • Diagnostic tonsillectomy (if lymphoma of the tonsils is suspected)

  • Pulmonary function tests in patients to receive ABVD or BEACOPP (bleomycin, etoposide, Adriamycin [doxorubicin], cyclophosphamide, Oncovin [vincristine], procarbazine, prednisone)

  • Determination of baseline ejection fraction for patients to receive doxorubicin-based chemotherapy

A lymphoma specialist should perform staging and treatment. The Ann Arbor staging system is used to stage lymphomas.

See Workup for more detail.


Initial therapy for HL typically includes the following:

  • Stage I or II favorable disease – Combined chemotherapy (ABVD) and radiation or combined chemotherapy alone

  • Stage I or II unfavorable disease – Chemotherapy with or without radiation

  • Stage III or IV disease – Combination chemotherapy (eg, ABVD - which is standard and has more tolerable side effects), more intensive/aggressive regimens (eg, Stanford V and BEACOPP), brentuximab vedotin,[2] and actinomycin D, bleomycin, and vincristine (ABV) components 

  • Nodular lymphocyte–predominant HL – Radiation or rituximab alone is often used; advanced-stage disease is usually treated like HL in patients with an unfavorable prognosis

Therapy for relapsing or refractory HL typically involves the following:

  • Early stage disease and relapse after radiation therapy alone – ABVD

  • Relapse after combined-modality therapy or chemotherapy alone – The same or other combination chemotherapy (if remission duration > 12 months)

  • Salvage therapy – ABVD; etoposide, methylprednisolone, cytarabine, and cisplatin (ESHP); ifosfamide, carboplatin, and etoposide (ICE); dose-adjusted etoposide phosphate, prednisone, Oncovin (vincristine sulfate), cyclophosphamide, and hydroxydaunorubicin (DA-EPOCH); or brentuximab vedotin[2]

  • Failed induction or relapse within a year of initial chemotherapy – High-dose chemotherapy (with or without radiotherapy) followed by autologous hematopoietic stem-cell transplantation

Therapy for NHL may include the following:

  • Indolent B-cell lymphoma (eg, follicular and small lymphocytic lymphoma) – Watch-and-wait strategy initially; fludarabine; anti-CD20; cyclophosphamide, hydroxydaunorubicin, Oncovin (vincristine sulfate), and prednisone (CHOP); rituximab; or rituximab plus CHOP (R-CHOP); on an investigational basis, radioimmunotherapy or stem-cell transplantation

  • Stage I or II diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) – Combined modalities, R-CHOP; use of rituximab, DA-EPOCH, or both may eliminate the need for irradiation

  • Stage III or IV DLBCL – Combination chemotherapy (eg, CHOP and, subsequently, R-CHOP)

  • Relapsing DLBCL – Salvage chemotherapy (eg, rituximab and ICE [R-ICE]; etoposide, solumedrol, high-dose cytarabine, and the platinum agent cisplatin [ESHAP]; or rituximab and DA-EPOCH [DA-EPOCH-R]); responsive disease is often treated with autologous stem-cell transplantation

  • Primary central nervous system (CNS) lymphoma – Methotrexate, rituximab, irradiation

  • Other aggressive B-cell lymphomas – Burkitt lymphoma is treated with intensive systemic chemotherapy; mantle-cell lymphoma is treated with measures ranging from aggressive combination chemotherapy to allogeneic transplantation; bortezomib may prove effective

Therapy for T-cell lymphomas may include the following:

  • Extranodal NK/T-cell lymphoma, nasal type – Irradiation (for localized disease)

  • Anaplastic large-cell lymphoma (ALCL) – Systemic chemotherapy

  • Angioimmunoblastic T-cell lymphoma – Poor results with standard therapy

  • T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma – Intrathecal chemotherapy

Surgery for treatment of lymphomas of the head and neck is only performed in selected cases.

See Treatment and Medication for more detail.


Otolaryngologists are frequently involved in the diagnosis of lymphoma. A quarter of all extranodal lymphomas occur in the head and neck, and 8% of findings on supraclavicular fine-needle aspiration biopsy yield a diagnosis of lymphoma. In White populations, lymphoma is a more common cause of cervical lymphadenopathy than metastatic disease. Lymphoma is the second most common primary malignancy occurring in the head and neck and importantly, with the incidence of aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma having risen steadily over recent decades.

The image below shows a lymphoma of the head and neck.

CT scan of a patient with a natural killer (NK)/T- CT scan of a patient with a natural killer (NK)/T-cell lymphoma of the right nasal cavity and maxillary sinus.


Although a variety of histologic classification schemes have been used for lymphoma in the past, the 2016 World Health Organization (WHO) classification update is currently used and is as follows[3] :

  • Hodgkin lymphoma (HL)

    • Nodular lymphocyte predominant

    • Classic

      • Nodular sclerosis classic

      • Mixed cellularity classic

      • Lymphocyte-rich classic

      • Lymphocyte-depleted classic

  • Mature B-cell neoplasms

    • B-cell lymphoma, unclassifiable, with features intermediate between DLBCL and classic HL

    • High-grade B-cell lymphoma, not otherwise specified

    • High-grade B-cell lymphoma with MYC and BCL2 and/or BCL6 rearrangements

    • Burkitt-like lymphoma with 11q aberration 

    • Burkitt lymphoma

    • Human herpesvirus 8 (HHV8) DLBCL, not otherwise specified

    • Primary effusion lymphoma

    • Plasmablastic lymphoma

    • Anaplastic lymphoma kinase–positive (ALK+) large B-cell lymphoma

    • Intravascular large B-cell lymphoma

    • Primary mediastinal (thymic) large B-cell lymphoma

    • Lymphomatoid granulomatosis

    • DLBCL associated with chronic inflammation 

    • EBV mucocutaneous ulcer

    • EBV DLBCL, not otherwise specified

    • Primary cutaneous DLBCL, leg type

    • Primary DLBCL of the CNS

    • T-cell/histiocyte-rich large B-cell lymphoma

    • DLBCL, not otherwise specified (germinal center B-cell type and activated B-cell type)

    • Mantle cell lymphoma (in situ mantle cell neoplasia)

    • Primary cutaneous follicle center lymphoma 

    • Large B-cell lymphoma with IRF4 rearrangement

    • Pediatric-type follicular lymphoma

    • Follicular lymphoma (in situ follicular neoplasia and duodenal-type follicular lymphoma)

    • Nodal marginal zone lymphoma (pediatric nodal marginal zone lymphoma)

    • Extranodal marginal zone lymphoma of mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT lymphoma)

    • Monoclonal immunoglobulin deposition diseases

    • Extraosseous plasmacytoma

    • Solitary plasmacytoma of bone

    • Plasma cell myeloma

    • Splenic B-cell lymphoma/leukemia, unclassifiable (splenic diffuse red pulp small B-cell lymphoma and hairy cell leukemia-variant)

    • Monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) - Immunoglobulin M (IgM; μ heavy chain, γ heavy chain, and α heavy chain)

    • MGUS - IgA/IgG

    • B-cell prolymphocytic leukemia

    • Monoclonal B-cell lymphocytosis

    • Hairy cell leukemia

    • Splenic marginal-zone lymphoma

    • Lymphoplasmacytic lymphoma (Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia)

    • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia, small lymphocytic lymphoma

  • Mature T-cell and NK-cell neoplasms
    • Adult T-cell leukemia or lymphoma
    • Anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALK positive and negative)

    • Breast implant–associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma (BIA-ALCL) in situations in which CD30 is expressed and ALK expression is absent; can present as a peri-prosthetic fluid collection and/or mass and usually occurs 8-10 years after implantation; all patients with breast implant–associated seromas occurring more than 1 year after implantation should have cytologic analysis; incidence is very low, but this is possibly due to poor understanding of the disease and/or misdiagnosis[4]

    • Angioimmunoblastic T-cell lymphoma

    • Peripheral T-cell lymphoma, not otherwise specified

    • Primary cutaneous γδ T-cell lymphoma

    • Primary cutaneous CD8-positive aggressive epidermotropic cytotoxic T-cell lymphomas

    • Primary cutaneous acral CD8-positive T-cell lymphoma

    • Primary cutaneous CD4-positive small/medium T-cell lymphoproliferative disorder

    • Primary cutaneous CD30-positive T-cell lymphoproliferative disorders (lymphomatoid papulosis, primary cutaneous anaplastic large cell lymphoma)

    • Sézary syndrome

    • Mycosis fungoides

    • Subcutaneous panniculitis-like T-cell lymphoma

    • Hepatosplenic T-cell lymphoma

    • Enteropathy-associated T-cell lymphoma

    • Extranodal NK-cell or T-cell lymphoma, nasal type

    • Monomorphic epitheliotropic intestinal T-cell lymphoma

    • Indolent T-cell lymphoproliferative disorder of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract

    • Follicular T-cell lymphoma

    • Nodal peripheral T-cell lymphoma with T–follicular helper cell (Tfh) phenotype

    • T-cell prolymphocytic leukemia

    • T-cell large granular lymphocytic leukemia

    • Chronic lymphoproliferative disorder of NK cells

    • Aggressive NK-cell leukemia

    • Systemic EBV-positive T-cell lymphoma of childhood

    • Hydroa vacciniforme–like lymphoproliferative disorder

  • Posttransplant lymphoproliferative disorders (PTLD)

    • Plasmacytic hyperplasia

    • Infectious mononucleosis

    • Florid follicular hyperplasia

    • Polymorphic 

    • Monomorphic (B-cell and NK/T-cell types)

    • Classic HL

  • Histiocytic and dendritic cell neoplasms

    • Histiocytic sarcoma

    • Langerhans cell histiocytosis

    • Langerhans cell sarcoma

    • Indeterminate dendritic cell tumor

    • Interdigitating dendritic cell sarcoma

    • Follicular dendritic cell sarcoma

    • Fibroblastic reticular cell tumor

    • Disseminated juvenile xanthogranuloma 

    • Erdheim-Chester disease

HL is characterized by the presence of Reed-Sternberg (RS) cells, and the subtype diagnosis depends on the cytoarchitectural milieu in which the Reed-Sternberg cells or their variants are found. Nodular sclerosis, mixed cellularity, lymphocyte-rich and lymphocyte-depleted subtypes are collectively termed classic HL. Nodular sclerosis is the most common subtype, especially in patients younger than 40 years, followed by mixed cellularity. Lymphocyte-predominant HL, more common in young men than in others, behaves more like a low-grade B-cell lymphoma than other tumors. In general, patients who are elderly, those who live in low-income countries, and those infected with HIV are most likely to have widespread disease with systemic symptoms at diagnosis.

Approximately 85% of NHLs are B-cell lymphomas. The most common indolent NHL is follicular lymphoma, which is derived from germinal center B cells. Other indolent histologies are lymphoplasmacytic lymphoma, which has characteristics of B cells differentiating toward plasma cells, and marginal-zone lymphoma derived from the memory B-cell compartment, which includes MALT lymphomas. DLBCL is the most common aggressive NHL. On the basis of messenger RNA microarrays, most cases have profiles that indicate an origin from a germinal center B cell or a postgerminal-center activated B cell. Mantle cell lymphoma and Burkitt lymphoma are aggressive NHLs that have the characteristics of normal B cells residing in the mantle zone or in the germinal center of a lymphoid follicle, respectively.

Cutaneous T-cell lymphomas, such as mycosis fungoides, can be indolent. However, many T-cell NHLs are aggressive malignancies.


For HL, overall 5-year survival rates in the United States are 83% for Whites and 77% for African Americans. For NHL, the 5-year survival rate is 53% for White patients and 42% for African Americans.

A study by Han et al using the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database found overall survival rates in the United States for nasopharyngeal lymphoma to be 70%, 57%, and 45% at 2, 5, and 10 years, respectively, and determined median overall survival to be 8.2 years. Multivariate analysis indicated that overall and disease-specific survival rates are worse in patients with advanced age or NK/T-cell NHL and are improved in association with radiation therapy.[5]

A study by Anderson et al found that in adolescents and young adults aged 15-39 years, noncancer-related deaths rates were higher in NHL, HL, and head and neck cancer than in the general US population, with the standardized mortality ratios for these rates being 6.33, 3.12, and 2.09, respectively. The ratio was high for certain other cancers as well.[6]



United States

Lymphoma is the fifth most common cancer in the United States, with an estimated annual incidence of 74,490 cases. Approximately 88% of these cancers are NHLs. The incidence of NHL has doubled over the last 20 years because of the increase in AIDS-related lymphoma (ARL)[7] ; an increase in the detection of lymphoma; an increase in the elderly population; and for other, poorly understood reasons.


The different histologic subtypes of NHL have various distributions and geographic predilections. The frequency of NK/T-cell lymphoma is increased in China, in Taiwan, in Southeast Asia, and in parts of Africa where Burkitt lymphoma is endemic.


HL and, to a lesser extent, NHL are more common in Whites than in African Americans or Hispanics. Other races such as Asian/Pacific Islanders and American Indians have the lowest incidence and mortality rates.


The incidence of both HL and NHL is higher in men than in women, especially among older patients.


In the United States, HL has a bimodal age distribution, with a peak incidence in people aged 20-34 years and a second peak in Whites aged 75-79 years and in African Americans aged 55-64 years. In Japan, the early peak is absent, and in some low-income countries, the early peak is seen in childhood.

The mortality rate increases with age. For example, incidence and mortality rates for NHL increase with age. In addition, Burkitt lymphoma represents 40-50% of all pediatric lymphomas but is uncommon in adults without AIDS.

Lymphoblastic lymphoma most commonly affects men aged 20-40 years who have lymphadenopathy and/or a mediastinal mass.




Lymphoma may be nodal or extranodal. Extranodal lymphoma is usually NHL and worsens the patient's prognosis. HL extends by means of contiguous nodal spread; therefore, it is often localized and frequently occurs in the mediastinum. NHL tends to spread hematogenously and is often systemic at diagnosis.

  • A nodal presentation of HL typically includes one or more small to medium, rubbery lymph nodes in the neck, which may wax or wane in size but grow over time.

    • Biopsy should be considered when a firm lymph node exists that is larger than 1 cm and is not associated with infection and that persists longer than 4 weeks.

    • In 2-5% of patients with HL, involved nodes can become painful after they drink alcoholic beverages.

  • NHL may manifest in the cervical region and lymphoid tissue of the Waldeyer ring. It appears as a mass in the oropharynx or nasopharynx.

    • Unilateral tonsillar enlargement is highly suggestive of malignancy. A retrospective study that included 740 patients (170 adults and 570 children) undergoing tonsillectomy with pathologic evaluation found an incidence of 0.67% (1.2% adult) for occult malignancy. The investigators described one case of Burkitt lymphoma, one of follicular lymphoma, one of DLBCL, and two of Mantle cell lymphoma.[8]

    • Extranodal disease, such as primary lymphoma, of the oral cavity is less common than other findings; this disease usually arises in the tongue base.

    • In contrast to squamous cell carcinoma, NHL is bulky, fleshy, and nonulcerating.

  • Extranodal NK/T-cell lymphoma, nasal type (formerly called lethal midline granuloma), can manifest as an ulcerative destructive lesion of the nose, sinuses, and face.

    • This lesion is usually associated with EBV and worsens the patient's prognosis compared with that of patients with B-cell lymphoma.

    • The disease often manifests with a nasal mass, epistaxis, and/or nasal obstruction. (See the video below of a fiberoptic examination of an NK/T-cell lymphoma in the right nasal cavity and maxillary sinus.)

    • Fiberoptic nasal examination of a patient with natural killer (NK)/T-cell lymphoma of the right nasal cavity and maxillary sinus.
    • A form of subcutaneous T-cell lymphoma resembling a panniculitis has been described (subcutaneous panniculitis-like T-cell lymphoma) in a young man with unilateral cheek swelling, a presentation that could easily be confused with an infectious etiology. [9]
  • Lymphoma in the thyroid is more common than anaplastic carcinoma of the thyroid. It manifests as a neck swelling, hoarseness, dysphagia, or neck pressure/tenderness and often arises in the setting of autoimmune thyroiditis. 

  • Advanced disease can cause facial edema and Horner syndrome.

  • Extranodal marginal-zone B-cell lymphoma of MALT lymphoma occurs in the head and neck, in the ocular adnexa, and in thyroid areas. MALT lymphomas in the ocular adnexa can be associated with chlamydial infections and require polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay analysis. H pylori infections can also be associated with MALT lymphomas.

  • Patients with Sjögren syndrome are at increased risk for MALT lymphomas in the oral mucosa.

  • Lymphoma involving the base of the skull or CNS can cause cranial nerve palsies, facial pain, hearing loss, vertigo, proptosis, or visual symptoms.

  • Constitutional symptoms, designated B symptoms, may occur in up to one third of patients with lymphoma.

    • B symptoms include weight loss greater than 10% of the patient's previous body weight, temperatures higher than 38°C without evidence of infection, and/or drenching night sweats.

    • Symptoms such as bony pain, headaches, or GI discomfort may indicate generalized disease.

    • A persistent cough can be the presenting feature of mediastinal lymphadenopathy, as can chest pain, shortness of breath, or hypertrophic osteoarthropathy.

    • Pruritus, malaise, fatigue, and weakness are nonspecific symptoms that occur in 10% of patients.


Full otorhinolaryngologic and neck examination including fiberoptic examination, in addition to complete physical examination, is indicated.

  • Examine patients for painless or mildly tender peripheral adenopathy in cervical, axillary, inguinal, and femoral regions. Less typically, enlargement of epitrochlear nodes is associated with enlargement of the Waldeyer ring.

  • Superior vena cava (SVC) syndrome and pleural effusions may be due to a mediastinal mass.

  • Some patients with indolent NHLs may have large, asymptomatic abdominal masses.

    • Splenic or hepatic enlargement may be detected.

    • The endemic (African) form of Burkitt lymphoma manifests as a jaw or abdominal tumor that spreads to extranodal sites, but the nonendemic (American) form has an abdominal presentation with massive disease.


Incidence of HL is increased 10-fold in same-sex siblings and by as much as 100-fold in identical twins. This observation implies genetic factors in the etiology.

  • Chromosomal abnormalities are common in lymphomas.

  • Aneuploidy occurs in HL, and translocations and deletions mark NHL, such as the C-MYC translocation of Burkitt lymphoma and the BCL2 translocation found in most follicular lymphomas.

Infectious agents implicated in the pathogenesis of some lymphomas include EBV, HIV-1 (aggressive NHL occurs in 10-30% of patients with AIDS), H pylori, human T-cell lymphotropic virus-1 (HTLV-1), hepatitis B and C viruses, human herpes virus 8, Borrelia burgdorferi, Chlamydia psittaci, and Campylobacter jejuni.

Chronic inflammation increases the risk of lymphoma, such as a MALT lymphoma arising in the salivary gland in a patient with Sjögren syndrome.

  • Hashimoto disease increases a patient's risk for thyroid lymphoma, usually aggressive NHL, about 70-fold.

  • In general, patients with autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, have an increased risk for lymphoma.

Immunosuppressive medications, such as those used following organ allotransplantation, increase the risk of EBV-associated NHL. A percentage of these lymphomas regress spontaneously when the immunosuppressive medication is discontinued.

Farming, welding, and work in the lumber industry are associated with an increased risk of lymphoma.



Diagnostic Considerations

The differential diagnosis of lymphadenopathy; extranodal masses in the salivary glands; retro-orbital, thyroid and oral-pharyngeal masses or lesions encompass a wide range of benign and malignant processes other than lymphoma. Reactive lymphoid processes, which may appear as pseudolymphomas, may be difficult to distinguish from lymphoma. Indeed, clonal expansion of benign B or T cells may occur in some reactive conditions. Adequate biopsy is essential for proper diagnosis, but pathologic interpretation must be considered in light of the patient's medical presentation and the biology of the lymphoma subtype.

Differentiation from lymphomas requires the use of clinical features, histology, immunophenotyping, and gene rearrangement studies for monoclonal population detection. Common differential diagnoses to be considered are listed below.

Other neoplasms

These include the following:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma

  • Nasopharyngeal carcinoma

  • Thyroid carcinoma

Generalized lymphadenopathy from infectious etiologies

These include the following:

  • Bacteria

  • Viruses (eg, EBV [infectious mononucleosis], cytomegalovirus, HIV)

  • Parasites (eg, toxoplasmosis)

Nasal granulomatous diseases

These include the following:

  • Wegener granulomatosis

  • Lymphomatoid granulomatosis

  • Infections (eg, leishmaniasis, syphilis)

Mediastinal presentations

These include the following:

  • Infections (eg, histoplasmosis, tuberculosis)

  • Sarcoidosis

  • Other neoplasms

Benign lymphoid hyperplasias

These include the following:

  • B-cell predominant - Cutaneous lymphoid hyperplasia (CLH), angiolymphoid hyperplasia with eosinophilia, Kimura disease, and Castleman disease

  • T-cell predominant - T-cell CLH, lymphomatoid contact dermatitis, and lymphomatoid drug eruption

Differential Diagnoses



Laboratory Studies

The following laboratory studies are indicated:

  • Complete blood cell count

  • Serum chemistries, including calcium, phosphate, and uric acid levels

  • Liver function, including lactate dehydrogenase values (an elevated level of lactate dehydrogenase is a biomarker of adverse prognosis)

  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) in HL

  • HIV and hepatitis B and C viral panels, as clinically indicated

Imaging Studies

Chest radiography is essential.

CT scanning of the chest, abdomen, and/or pelvis is necessary for the evaluation of mediastinal, retroperitoneal, and mesenteric adenopathy. CT scans miss splenic involvement in 20-30% of cases of limited stage HL.

CT scanning of the head and/or neck is mandatory for patients with a head and neck presentation; localized disease; or symptoms such as cranial neuropathies, hearing loss, vertigo, or vision changes. The images below depict CT scan changes.

CT scan of a patient with a natural killer (NK)/T- CT scan of a patient with a natural killer (NK)/T-cell lymphoma of the right nasal cavity and maxillary sinus.
CT scan 6 months after treatment with 4 cycles of CT scan 6 months after treatment with 4 cycles of DA-EPOCH (ie, infused etoposide, doxorubicin, and vincristine with bolus cyclophosphamide and prednisone).
CT scan of a patient with a recurrence of stage I- CT scan of a patient with a recurrence of stage I-AE angiocentric lymphoma of the left maxillary sinus, treated 7 years earlier with 4 cycles of ProMACE-MOPP (ie, prednisone, methotrexate, Adriamycin, cyclophosphamide, etoposide–mechlorethamine [nitrogen mustard], vincristine, procarbazine, and prednisone) and 3960 cGy of radiation.
CT scan 2 years after salvage therapy. CT scan 2 years after salvage therapy.

MRI is used as indicated for evaluation of the brain and/or spinal cord. PET scanning should also be ordered as indicated.

Other Tests

Immunohistochemical analysis of the tumor is essential for diagnosis and may aid in identifying monoclonal antibody targets such as CD20 (rituximab), CD52 (alemtuzumab), PD-1 (nivolumab, pembrolizumab), or CD30 (brentuximab). Cytogenetic analysis may be useful in select cases.

PCR assay analysis helps in evaluating for B- or T-cell clonality or for minimal residual disease, such as t(14;18).

In DLBCL, fluorescent in-situ hybridization (FISH) for t(8;14)/MYC translocation should be considered. Up to 10% of DLBCLs have a MYC translocation and a poor outcome with standard therapy.[10]

Triple-hit lymphomas (MYC/BCL2/BCL6 translocations) and double-hit lymphomas (MYC/BCL2 vs MYC/BCL6 translocations) have a worse prognosis, particularly if they overexpress p53.[11]


Nasopharyngeal laryngoscopy

Nasopharyngeal laryngoscopy is essential. Perform this as the initial investigation to evaluate for a neoplasm of the upper aerodigestive tract that is accessible for biopsy.

Fine-needle aspiration cytology

Fine-needle aspiration cytology is also essential. This test is useful for the initial investigation of neck lymphadenopathy for differentiating squamous cell carcinoma from lymphomas, thyroid tumors, and salivary gland tumors.

A study by Crous et al found the combination of fine-needle aspiration cytology and flow cytometry to be effective in diagnosing NHL but less so in detecting HL. According to the investigators, in NHL the combined diagnostic means had a sensitivity of 95.5%, a specificity of 99.9%, a positive predictive value of 99.5%, and a negative predictive value of 99.2%, being 99.3% accurate. However, fine-needle aspiration cytology/flow cytometry missed 6 out of 13 HL cases (46.2%).[12]

Excisional lymph-node biopsy

Excisional lymph-node biopsy is essential in HL and NHL. Needle aspiration and/or biopsy are not adequate for the primary histologic diagnosis because the architectural features of the tissue are important. A biopsy specimen should be obtained from the lump through an incision that can itself be excised and incorporated into a radical neck dissection if the histologic findings indicate squamous cell carcinoma. In most cases, the unfixed node should be sent immediately to the laboratory for analysis.

Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy

Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy are also essential. Results are positive in as many as 70% of patients with indolent NHL. In disseminated disease, malignant cells may be found in the bone marrow, spinal fluid, ascites fluid, or pleural fluid.

Lumbar puncture

Lumbar puncture may be indicated. This should be performed routinely in all patients with HIV infection, as well as in patients with specific histologic subtypes such as Burkitt lymphoma and lymphoblastic lymphoma. Lumbar puncture is also used when possible symptoms of CNS disease are present after head CT or MRI shows no evidence of mass effect. In addition to cytology, the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) should be evaluated with flow cytometry, as evidence has indicated that cytology may not help in detecting some cases with positive results on flow cytometry.

Staging laparotomy or laparoscopy

Historically, staging laparotomy was often included in the initial evaluation of patients with HL, as this was the only way to detect occult splenic disease. This is now being replaced by PET/CT scanning. 

Diagnostic tonsillectomy

Diagnostic tonsillectomy may be indicated if lymphoma of the tonsils is suspected. Risk factors for malignancy in the tonsils are tonsillar asymmetry, a history of cancer, palpable firmness or a visible lesion of the tonsil, neck mass, unexplained weight loss, and constitutional symptoms.

In a study of 476 consecutive adults undergoing tonsillectomy, no patient without at least one of the risk factors listed above had malignancy on pathologic evaluation of the tonsils. However, a retrospective study including 740 patients (170 adults and 570 children) undergoing tonsillectomy with pathologic evaluation had an incidence of 0.67% (1.2% adult) for occult malignancy. One case of Burkitt lymphoma, one case of follicular lymphoma, one case of DLBCL, and two cases of Mantle cell lymphoma were described. Two of the five patients with occult malignancies discovered on routine tonsillectomy did not have any features suggestive of malignancy.[8]

Histologic Findings

Accurate histologic diagnosis is the main guide for the modality of treatment to be used in NHL. A pathologist experienced in lymphoma diagnosis uses immunophenotyping by immunocytochemistry and/or flow cytometry to aid diagnosis. Special stains can be used, such as staining for follicular dendritic cells to highlight residual architecture in differentiating MALT from non-MALT lymphoma. Of interest, 80% of lymph-node infarctions are associated with a final diagnosis of lymphoma.


A lymphoma specialist should perform staging and treatment.

  • The Ann Arbor staging system is used to stage lymphomas. Although it was originally designed for HL and based on the contiguous lymphatic mode of spread of HL, it is used for cases of NHL in which hematogenous dissemination is prevalent. The Ann Arbor staging classification is as follows:

    • Stage I - Involvement of a single lymph node region or lymphoid structure

    • Stage II - Involvement of 2 or more lymph node regions on the same side of the diaphragm or localized contiguous involvement of only 1 extralymphatic site and lymph node region

    • Stage III - Involvement of lymph node regions or lymphoid structures on both sides of the diaphragm and possibly the spleen

    • Stage IV - Disseminated involvement of 1 or more extralymphatic organs with or without lymph node involvement and/or involvement of the bone marrow or liver

  • Other designations are as follows:

    • Letter designations

      • A - Asymptomatic, or B constitutional symptoms: This type is characterized by unexplained, persistent or recurrent fever with temperature higher than 38°C or by recurrent and drenching night sweats within 1 month, or by unexplained loss of more than 10% of the person's body weight within 6 months.

      • E - Extranodal: This form is characterized by limited and direct extension into an extralymphatic organ from an adjacent lymph node.

      • X - Bulky disease: In this form, the width of the mediastinal tumor is greater than one third of the transthoracic diameter at T5/6, or the diameter of the tumor diameter is larger than 10 cm.

    • Stage IV indicates disseminated disease, or multifocal extranodal, bone marrow, or liver involvement. Bone involvement must be separated from bone marrow involvement because the latter is always defined as disseminated disease.

  • The clinical stage is defined by the extent of disease based on physical findings and findings on other noninvasive studies. The pathologic stage is defined by data obtained from invasive tests, including biopsy of specimens obtained from different sites, usually during staging laparotomy.

  • Treatment and prognosis for HL and NHL depend on the disease stage, biomarkers, and tumor biology. In NHL and in some types of HL, the histologic subtype dictates therapy.

  • In the past, early stage HL was usually treated with radiotherapy alone, but now, it is generally treated with a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Disseminated disease is treated by using chemotherapy with or without radiotherapy.

  • In some patients with indolent NHL who have early stage localized disease, radiotherapy alone may be an option. For aggressive lymphomas, chemotherapy is standard, but may be used in conjunction with radiotherapy. Radiotherapy is the primary treatment modality for early stage NK/T-cell lymphomas.



Medical Care

In the past, the standard chemotherapeutic regimen used for HL was mechlorethamine (nitrogen mustard), vincristine, procarbazine, and prednisolone (MOPP). However, this regimen was associated with infertility, a 2% incidence of myelodysplasia/acute leukemia at 4-6 years after treatment, and a 3% incidence of fatal febrile neutropenia. ABVD is a regimen of doxorubicin (Adriamycin), bleomycin, vinblastine, and dacarbazine. ABVD is superior to MOPP alone and is now considered the standard of care in HL. The incidence of infertility is lower with ABVD than with MOPP, but fatal pulmonary toxicity can occur with bleomycin.

In advanced HL, intensified regimens such as the escalated BEACOPP (ie, cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin [Adriamycin], etoposide, procarbazine, prednisolone, vincristine, and bleomycin with granulocyte colony-stimulating factor) are being investigated. However, ABVD remains the standard of care.

  • HL - Initial therapy

    • Classic HL: For the purpose of selecting therapy, the European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC) divides patients with early stage (I or II) classic HL into favorable or unfavorable groups based on the presence of at least 1 of the following adverse factors: large mediastinal mass, age > 50 years, elevated ESR, and involvement of 4 or more lymph-node regions. Advanced stages are III and IV.

      • Stage I or II favorable disease: Although extended-field radiotherapy alone was the standard of care for several years, most groups now favor combined chemotherapy and radiation or combined chemotherapy alone, and a recent study has demonstrated a better overall survival for patients who receive chemotherapy alone.[13]

      • Stage I and II unfavorable disease: Chemotherapy with or without radiation is standard of care.

      • Stage III or IV disease: For advanced disease, combination chemotherapy, such as ABVD, is the standard of care. Patients generally receive 2 cycles of therapy beyond complete remission (for a minimum of 6 and maximum of 8 cycles). Patients with bulky mediastinal disease often receive consolidative irradiation. Radiation therapy is sometimes omitted in select patients who have complete remission and negative PET scans.

      • Although the outcome with ABVD in these stages is good (event-free survival of about 70%) and although it remains the standard of care, intensive regimens are being investigated. The Stanford V regimen, which combines chemotherapy (mechlorethamine, doxorubicin, vinblastine, vincristine, bleomycin, etoposide, and prednisone) with consolidative radiotherapy applied to bulky sites produces a progression-free survival of over 80%. The German Hodgkin Study Group investigated bleomycin, etoposide, doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide, vincristine, procarbazine, and prednisone (BEACOPP).[14] Although this therapy was associated with increased toxicity, elevated-dose BEACOPP has shown promising results in terms of reduced induction failures and decreased rates of treatment failure and is an alternative to ABVD. 

    • In contrast to classic HL, nodular lymphocyte-predominant HL is a rare subtype that is biologically similar to indolent B-cell lymphoma.

      • The 10-year survival rate for patients with early stage disease without treatment is greater than 80%; therefore, the role of therapy in asymptomatic patients is unclear. Nevertheless, radiation or rituximab alone is often used.

      • Advanced-stage disease is usually treated like HL in patients with an unfavorable prognosis, although regimens for aggressive NHL may be considered.

      • Rituximab has demonstrated good activity in this disease.

  • HL - Therapy for relapsing or refractory disease

    • For patients who have had early stage disease and relapse after receiving radiation therapy alone, regimens such as ABVD are highly effective and result in high relapse-free survival rates of about 70% at 10 years.

    • For patients who have relapse after receiving combined-modality therapy or chemotherapy alone, the same or another combination chemotherapeutic regimen can be used if the duration of remission exceeds 12 months. The relapse-free survival rate at 5 years is 50%.

    • Regimens used for salvage therapy in HL include ABVD; etoposide, methylprednisolone, high-dose cytarabine, and cisplatin (ESHP); ifosfamide, cisplatin, and etoposide (ICE); and dose-adjusted etoposide, prednisone, vincristine, cyclophosphamide, and hydroxy-daunorubicin (DA-EPOCH). Augmented ICE (augICE) therapy is also an option but is an intensive regimen.[15]

    • For patients in whom induction fails or who have a relapse within a year of initial chemotherapy, the outcome with standard chemotherapy is poor. High-dose chemotherapy (with or without radiotherapy) followed by autologous hematopoietic stem-cell transplantation is the standard therapy for patients with responsive disease.

    • Autologous stem cell transplantation (ASCT) should also be seriously considered for patients with sensitive disease who have a relapse after 12 months. Complete responses on pre-ASCT PET scans are an indicator of better prognosis after ASCT.[15]

    • Patients with disease remaining after curative options have been exhausted are often still responsive to chemotherapy. Such patients may achieve lasting benefit from long-term treatment with single agents such as vinblastine, gemcitabine, or etoposide. Brentuximab vedotin, which targets CD30, has been approved for the treatment of patients with relapsed HL and has high response rates.[16] In addition, investigational therapies for HL include the use of monoclonal antibodies, radioimmunoconjugates, tumor vaccines, or immunotherapy, as well as allogeneic stem-cell transplantation.

    • Fifteen to 30 percent of patients with HL do not achieve long-term remission. Autologous stem-cell transplantation offers an additional, possibly curative treatment for those in whom initial combination chemotherapy fails, but this is only effective in about 50% of patients. CD30 is expressed on Hodgkin Reed-Sternberg cells, anaplastic large-cell lymphomas, embryonal carcinomas, and mature T-cell lymphomas and is a target for therapy.

    • The new drug brentuximab vedotin consists of the CD30-specific monoclonal antibody cAC10 attached to an antitubulin agent, monomethyl auristatin E (MMAE), for more effective antitumor activity. It is indicated in patients with CD30-positive tumors and relapsed or refractory disease. A multi-institutional study was performed with a total of 45 patients; it demonstrated an acceptable dose for its safety profile using a 1.8 mg/kg dose given every 3 weeks. The most common adverse effects, which were usually grade 1 or 2 in severity, were fatigue, pyrexia, diarrhea, neutropenia, nausea, and peripheral neuropathy. Complete regression was noted in 11 out of 17 patients with objective responses. Tumor regression observed on CT scan was noted in 36 out of 42 patients who could be evaluated at the end of the study. Thirteen patients with disease-related symptoms (out of 16 patients who reported them) had resolution of symptoms during treatment. The objective response had a median duration of 9.7 months or more, with median progression-free survival being 5.9 months.[2]

    • Brentuximab vedotin as a single agent or in combination with PD-1 blockade and other chemotherapy regimens prior to ASCT has been evaluated. In one study, patients with disease progression after initial treatment underwent single-agent brentuximab vedotin therapy. Those with complete or near-complete responses on PET scanning then underwent ASCT, and those who did not received more brentuximab vedotin with augICE treatment before undergoing ASCT. Of the 65 patients enrolled, 27% achieved complete response to brentuximab vedotin, and 83% achieved complete response to the brentuximab vedotin/augICE regimen. Sixty-four patients underwent ASCT, and 82% were progression-free at 3 years.

    • Brentuximab vedotin with bendamustine has been evaluated as well and shows promise, but it is associated with higher toxicities. Brentuximab vedotin with nivolumab is also showing promise as a treatment strategy, as it is effective, with more tolerability and, in one study with 62 patients, was associated with complete response rates approaching 61%. Research into brentuximab vedotin with pembrolizumab is also showing promising results, as has an investigation of brentuximab vedotin plus nivolumab and ipilimumab.[15]

    • Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells targeting CD30 are also being examined.[15]


    • Indolent B-cell lymphoma: These lymphomas include multiple subtypes, such as follicular and small lymphocytic lymphoma, and they are generally considered incurable with conventional therapy. The tumors are characterized by an indolent course, and because patients can remain well for several years without therapy, a watch-and-wait strategy is often used. When this is the case, indications for therapy include symptomatic or aggressive disease, bulky lymphadenopathy, hypersplenism, or bone-marrow infiltration causing cytopenias. Evidence has indicated that patients who are symptomatic and have untreated advanced-stage follicular lymphoma may benefit from receiving the combination of CHOP chemotherapy and rituximab.

      • In select patients with early stage follicular lymphoma, irradiation alone is associated with a 10-year disease-free survival rate of over 60%. Although no prospective study has been performed to compare irradiation with observation, findings from a recent retrospective analysis from Stanford University suggest that irradiation may not improve the survival of patients with early disease over observation alone.

      • Several drugs are effective. Fludarabine has high response rates and is useful in untreated and previously treated patients, as are alkylating agents such as cyclophosphamide and prednisone. Anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody is increasingly used; it is effective in treated patients and in up to 73% of untreated patients. In combination with fludarabine or a regimen such as CHOP, rituximab is effective and may have a role in maintenance therapy. A phase III study showed that rituximab and CHOP (R-CHOP) improved survival compared with CHOP alone, raising the issue of whether R-CHOP should be the new standard.

      • Radioimmunotherapy is a relatively new treatment for relapsing follicular lymphoma. It involves radiotherapy targeted to tumor tissue by conjugating anti-CD20 antibody to yttrium-90 or iodine-131. Ibritumomab tiuxetan (Zevalin) and tositumomab (Bexxar) are approved for relapsing or refractory follicular lymphoma and have an overall response rate of up to 80%. Their role in previously untreated disease has still not been established and remains under investigation.

      • Both autologous and allogeneic stem-cell transplantation are being evaluated in follicular lymphoma. Idiotype vaccination, made by conjugating and immunologically manipulating tumor-specific antigen for in vitro and bcl-2 antisense therapy is aimed at decreasing bcl-2 oncoprotein.

    • Aggressive B-cell lymphomas: These include DLBCL, Burkitt lymphoma, mantle-cell lymphoma, and lymphoblastic lymphoma. With the exception of mantle-cell lymphoma, these tumors are potentially curable.

      • DLBCL is the most common histologic subtype. All stages of disease require systemic chemotherapy; irradiation alone is inadequate. Early stage (stage I or II) disease may be treated with combined modalities, although the benefit of irradiation is controversial and it adds the problem of long-term toxicities which can be very serious.

      • Chemotherapy followed by consolidation radiotherapy has 5-year overall survival and progression-free survival rates of up to 80%. Rituximab-based chemotherapy and the observation that radiation does not improve overall survival strengthen the case for immunochemotherapy alone.

      • Primary mediastinal DLBCL (PMBCL) is a potential exception in that consolidation radiotherapy appears to be necessary after standard chemotherapy. However, results with DA-EPOCH and rituximab (DA-EPOCH-R) suggest that this regimen may obviate the need for radiation treatment in most patients. This is particularly important in this disease, considering that it typically occurs in young women who have a much higher risk of developing breast and other cancers after receiving mediastinal radiation.

      • Stage III or IV DLBCL is treated with combination chemotherapy. CHOP, developed more than 25 years ago, remains the standard combination and cures about one third of all cases. In a randomized study, the addition of rituximab improved event-free and overall survival and has led to the emergence of R-CHOP as the de facto standard in DLBCL.

      • Several other regimens are used to treat DLBCL. In patients with a poor prognosis over age 60 years, doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide, vindesine, bleomycin, and prednisone (ADVBP) is associated with improved overall and event-free survivals compared with CHOP. DA-EPOCH-R has progression-free and overall survival rates of approximately 80% at 2-year follow-up. A modified CHOP regimen, such as dose-dense CHOP (given every 2 wk) or etoposide plus CHOP (CHOEP) has also been evaluated, but no definitive and convincing evidence suggests that either should replace standard R-CHOP given on a 21-day schedule. Autologous stem-cell transplant consolidation in untreated DLBCL is under investigation, but most results do not suggest any benefit over standard approaches.

      • Relapsing DLBCL should be treated with salvage chemotherapy, such as rituximab and ICE (R-ICE), ESHAP, or DA-EPOCH-R. Patients with responsive disease are often treated with ASCT, but cure rates are relatively low. In patients who have a chemosensitive relapse without marrow involvement of the bone, high-dose therapy usually offers the best opportunity for a response and remission. The value of autologous transplantation at relapse may diminish because more patients are being cured with R-CHOP (compared with CHOP in the past) given as initial therapy.[17]

      • Primary CNS lymphoma (PCNSL) is a rare DLBCL usually confined to the CNS. Although these lymphomas have DLBCL histology, their clinical behavior is distinct from systemic DLBCL, a feature that indicates different biology. Several important drugs used for the treatment of systemic DLBCL achieve low CNS concentrations because they do not cross the blood-brain barrier. Methotrexate, which has excellent CNS penetration, is the core of chemotherapeutic regimens for PCNSL; alone, it produces response rates of up to 50%. Irradiation is also effective, but responses are short lived. New treatment paradigms combine several drugs with good CNS penetration and rituximab, with or without irradiation.

    • Other aggressive B-cell lymphomas

      • Burkitt lymphoma is a highly aggressive B-cell lymphoma that can cause disease in the head and neck region. It is curable with systemic chemotherapy. Intensive regimens are typically used and include intrathecal chemotherapy. Lymphoblastic lymphoma is usually of the T-cell phenotype and usually affects the mediastinum; this is curable with aggressive chemotherapy.

      • Mantle-cell lymphoma is a B-cell lymphoma that has a moderately aggressive clinical course. Current treatments are rarely curative, and patients have a median survival of 3-5 years. Treatments range from aggressive combination chemotherapy to allogeneic transplantation. In asymptomatic patients, particularly in older patients, a watch-and-wait approach is reasonable. The disease has a high predilection for the gastrointestinal tract, although it may involve the tonsils and head and neck nodes. Recently, bortezomib was found to be effective in the treatment of relapsed and refractory mantle cell lymphoma and is being evaluated in the up-front setting.

    • Aggressive B-cell lymphomas in patients with immunocompromise

      • Patients with HIV infection have a significantly increased incidence of lymphoma. The risk is increased approximately 1000-fold for Burkitt lymphoma and 400-fold for aggressive lymphoma. Many of these lymphomas are highly curable and should be treated with systemic chemotherapy. Recent studies show excellent outcomes with EPOCH-R chemotherapy.[18, 19]

      • Lymphomas are also seen after solid-organ transplantation, when they are generally associated with an infection with EBV.

      • The spectrum of disease is wide, and treatment options include the withdrawal of immunosuppression, rituximab, and chemotherapy. Whether combination antiretroviral therapy (cART) should be suspended during chemotherapy is controversial

  • T-cell lymphomas: Patients with T-cell lymphoma can present with disease in the head and neck region, but these tumors are less common than B-cell lymphomas. In general, T-cell lymphomas involve the nodal regions, but skin involvement with cutaneous T-cell lymphomas can also occur. Extranodal NK/T-cell lymphomas specifically involve the nasal sinuses. These lymphomas are derived from mature T cells and have been subdivided into a number of distinct pathologic entities. However, some do not fit into a specific subtype and are classified as peripheral T-cell lymphoma unspecified.

    • Extranodal NK/T-cell lymphoma, nasal type: The sites of predilection for this particular disease are the nasal cavity, nasopharynx, and palate. Patients with this are variable, but localized disease can be treated very effectively with radiation. The prognosis for those with disseminated disease is poor.

    • Other peripheral T-cell lymphomas: Anaplastic large-cell lymphoma (ALCL) tends to occur in young patients, and the outcome with systemic chemotherapy is good. The long-term survival rate is approximately 70% with chemotherapy. Angioimmunoblastic T-cell lymphoma is usually associated with immunodeficiency. It tends to be aggressive, and results of standard therapy are poor. Those with peripheral T-cell lymphoma, not otherwise specified, also have poor outcomes, with a low incidence of cure. T-cell lymphoblastic lymphomas are highly aggressive and are treated with regimens that include intrathecal chemotherapy.

Surgical Care

Surgery is performed only in select cases. Surgical intervention may be pivotal in obtaining biopsy specimens for histopathologic and immunophenotypic characterization of the lymphoproliferative disorder.


Medical oncologists work closely with radiation oncologists, head and neck oncologic surgeons, and pathologists to establish diagnoses and treatment courses and to provide follow-up care by means of multidisciplinary conferences. 



Medication Summary

For a general discussion of chemotherapeutic regimens, see Treatment. See also the following articles: For adults, see Lymphoma, Non-Hodgkin and Lymphoma, B-Cell, and for children, please see Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and Hodgkin Disease.



Further Outpatient Care

Otolaryngologists are required to perform regular nasopharyngeal laryngoscopy in patients whose initial presentation involved findings in the nasopharyngeal cavity, mouth, or sinuses.

In addition, otolaryngologists may be required to perform a biopsy when suspicious lesions are present in these areas. They may also need to perform biopsy for suspicious neck nodes during follow-up to obtain a histopathologic specimen to examine for recurrence.


For patients with HL anticipating mantle irradiation, abstinence from smoking is essential to minimize their risk of lung carcinoma.

In addition, patients who receive bleomycin are at risk for lung toxicity.

When possible, mantle irradiation should be avoided in people who smoke and in young women because of the risks of lung and breast cancer, respectively, as secondary neoplasia is the most common cause of long-term treatment-related mortality.


Because of the high cure rates for patients with lymphoma, particularly those with HL, the long-term adverse effects of therapy are important considerations and these effects have recently been realized in long-term follow-up of patients with HL.[20, 21] Mortality from causes other than HL overtakes HL deaths at 15 years after diagnosis, and because the median age at diagnosis is 44 years, most are treatment-related deaths. Deaths from second malignancies become the most important cause of death other than HL itself.

  • The risk of leukemia is maximal at 5-10 years after treatment. Leukemia rarely occurs after the second decade. Although it is observed after irradiation alone, the relative risk is an order of magnitude less than the risk after therapy with alkylating agents.

    • The addition of involved-field irradiation increases the risk only marginally if at all, but extended-field irradiation with chemotherapy increases the risk from 2-3% to 6-9% at 10-15 years.

    • The risk of leukemia is linearly related to the total dose of alkylating agents. Repeated courses of drug, as in the treatment of relapses with the same amount of alkylating agent over 2 or more periods, may increase the risk 40-fold.

    • The risk of leukemia after ABVD is less than that after MOPP therapy.

  • The risk of NHL is increased after treatment for HL, even in the first 5 years, and the cumulative risk is 4.1% after 20 years and levels off by the middle of the second decade after treatment.

    • The incidence of gastrointestinal involvement is high.

    • Increasing age at treatment of HL is correlated with an increasing risk of secondary NHL or leukemia.

  • After patients are cured of HL, second neoplasms other than leukemia or NHL are the most common challenge in achieving a normal life span.

    • The risk of solid cancer continues well beyond the second decade, with no indication of when, if ever, it diminishes.

    • The 20-year cumulative risk of solid tumors is 13.1% compared with 8.1% for leukemia and NHL combined.

    • The major carcinogenic role is attributed to irradiation because approximately two thirds of the second solid tumors arise in or at the edge of treatment fields.

  • The risks of other cancer may increase.

    • The risk of lung cancer increases 2- to 8-fold after radiotherapy or combined regimens containing alkylating agents.

    • The excess risk of breast carcinoma predominantly affects women undergoing irradiation before the age of 30 years. Breast carcinomas begin to appear at the end of the first decade after HL irradiation and continue at increased frequencies for at least 3 decades (longest observation period so far). Calculations in women with HL who were treated before the age of 20 years predict a 34% incidence of breast cancer at 25 years after irradiation.

    • The absolute risk of carcinomas of stomach, pancreas, and thyroid; sarcomas of the bone and soft tissue; and melanomas continues to increase in the third decade after treatment.

    • An increase in colorectal cancer has also been reported in pediatric patients who had HL.

  • Cardiovascular complications of mantle irradiation are second only to new neoplasms as the most frequent cause of treatment-related mortality in patients with HL.

    • The relative risk of cardiac death is modest (2.2-3.1), but the absolute risk is high (9.3-28 cases per 10,000 patients per year), with a cumulative risk of cardiac mortality after 22 years of 23% for men and 8% for women.

    • Myocardial infarction accounts for more than two thirds of these deaths (15.5% of treated men and 3.5% of treated women at 22 y).

    • Refinement of irradiation techniques, such as the introduction of equal anterior and posterior fractions, reduced fraction size, and routine left ventricular and subcarinal blocking to limit doses to the entire cardiac silhouette, has led to a nearly one quarter reduction in the risk of radiation damage to the pericardium, myocardium, and heart valves. However, the number of deaths from myocardial infarction has not decreased.

Other complications of radiation therapy are hypothyroidism (after mantle irradiation), xerostomia, pharyngitis, fatigue, and weight loss.

  • Pulmonary complications are radiation pneumonitis, which is severe in fewer than 5% of patients, and symptomatic pulmonary fibrosis, which occurs in fewer than 1% of patients.

  • Para-aortic irradiation is rarely associated with clinically significant adverse effects.

  • Pelvic irradiation induces acute, transient diarrhea and bladder irritation associated with urinary frequency.

  • Long-term effects include a potential for long-term bone-marrow suppression and sterility.

Patients treated for NHL can have late relapses at 7-10 years.

  • Patients receiving standard chemotherapy have an increased risk for acute nonlymphoblastic leukemia or other malignant neoplasms, such as melanoma, HL, lung cancer, brain tumors, renal cancer, and bladder cancer.

  • In patients with NHL, the late effects of radiation therapy are similar to those of HL (as described above).

A study by Seland et al indicated that in patients with NHL treated with radiation of the head and neck, those with untreated hormone dysfunction are at greater risk of subsequently developing chronic fatigue. The study’s results also suggested that patients whose dysfunction has been treated with hormone substitution are at no greater risk of chronic fatigue than are patients with normal hormone status. The study included 98 NHL survivors who had been treated with radiation to the head and neck region, 29% of whom had chronic fatigue.[22]

A study by Chelius et al found that in patients with indolent NHL of the head and neck, toxicities tend to be minimal for treatment with either very low–dose radiation (4 Gy) or higher-dose radiation (>4 Gy, median dose in this study being 30 Gy). However, patients in the 4 Gy group had lower rates of toxicity, with, for example, early toxicity of the orbit having an incidence of 42%, versus 96% in the higher-dose patients.[23]

Common toxicity-related effects of chemotherapy are nausea and vomiting, marrow suppression, alopecia, mucositis, pneumonitis, and neuropathy. Delayed effects of chemotherapy can include a risk of premature menopause and infertility and a small risk of anthracycline-induced cardiac toxicity.

After autologous stem-cell transplantation, late, nonrelapse mortality is primarily due to chronic lung damage, infection, and secondary malignancies. Late pulmonary fibrosis occurs in up to 6% of patients, and late fatal infections occur in 1-2%. The incidence of leukemia in patients undergoing transplantation is similar to the incidence in those receiving conventional chemotherapy, but the risk of secondary solid tumors is higher than with chemotherapy alone.


In early stage HL, factors associated with adverse outcomes are large mediastinal involvement, age older than 40 years, B symptoms, involvement at multiple sites, high ESR, high beta2-microglobulin, mixed-cellularity and lymphocyte-depleted histologies, and treatment with involved-field radiation.

For advanced HL, the International Prognostic Factors Project for Advanced Hodgkin's Lymphoma identified seven adverse factors at diagnosis: initial hemoglobin level of less than 10.5 g/dL, albumin value less than 4 g/dL, stage IV disease, male sex, white blood cell count greater than 15,000 cells/mm3, absolute lymphocyte count of less than 600 cells/mm3, and age older than 45 years. Each of these factors decreases the 5-year progression-free survival rate by 7-8%.

In patients with aggressive B-cell NHL (eg, DLBCL), the prognosis depends on age (< 60 or >60 y), serum lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) levels, performance status, stage, and extranodal involvement. Response to treatment is also an important prognostic indicator.

A study by Teckie et al indicated that in patients with early stage extranodal marginal-zone lymphoma, those with lymphoma of the stomach or the head and neck have the highest likelihood of relapse-free survival following treatment with curative-intent radiation therapy alone. The study utilized the records of 490 patients (median follow-up 5.2 y) with stage IE or IIE marginal-zone lymphoma, located most frequently in the stomach, orbit, skin, breast, or nonthyroid head and neck.[24]

A study by Eismann et al indicated that following systemic therapy, image-guided intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IG-IMRT) offers some benefit over three-dimensional conventional radiotherapy (3DCRT), in patients with aggressive head and neck extranodal NHL. Patients who received IG-IMRT had an overall response rate of 85%, compared with 73% in individuals who underwent 3DCRT. Moreover, there were fewer acute or chronic adverse events associated with IG-IMRT.[25]

Patient Education

For patient education resources, see the Cancer and Tumors Center, as well as Brain Cancer and Cancer of the Mouth and Throat.