Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL) in Children

What is non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) in children?

NHL is cancer that starts in the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is part of the immune system. It helps to fight diseases and infections. 

NHL results from abnormal growth of the cells in the lymphatic system. The cells can also spread to other organs and tissues in the body (metastasis). NHL is rare in children. It can happen at any age, and affects boys more often than girls. 

There are different types of NHL in children. But most tend to grow quickly. Your child's care team may order different tests based on what type of lymphoma is found. Treatment options also depend on the specific type of lymphoma.

What causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma in a child?

Researchers don't know the exact cause of NHL. Genes and some viral infections may increase a child’s risk of having NHL. Risk factors that might be linked to NHL include:                                                     

  • Epstein-Barr virus infection, this virus causes mono (mononucleosis)

  • HIV, the virus that causes AIDS

  • Past cancer treatment with radiation therapy

  • Certain hereditary immune system conditions present at birth

  • Taking anti-rejection medicines after organ transplant

What are the symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in a child?

In many cases, NHL in children may not cause symptoms until it has grown or spread. Many children have advanced disease at the time of diagnosis. This is because the symptoms start suddenly, and the tumors tend to grow fast. A child can become very sick in a very short time (a few days or weeks).

Signs and symptoms depend on the type of NHL. Symptoms of a belly (abdominal) tumor can include:

  • Abdominal pain

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Fever

  • Trouble with bowel movements (constipation)

  • Poor appetite

Symptoms of a chest tumor include:

  • Trouble breathing or swallowing

  • Pain with deep breaths

  • Cough or wheezing

  • High-pitched breathing sounds

  • Swelling or skin looks blue on the head and arms 

Other symptoms may include:

  • Painless swelling of the lymph nodes in neck, chest, abdomen, underarm, or groin

  • Fever

  • Sore throat

  • Bone and joint pain

  • Night sweats

  • Tiring easily (fatigue)

  • Weight loss

  • Poor appetite

  • Itching of the skin

  • Recurring infections

The symptoms of NHL can be like other health problems. Make sure your child sees a healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is non-Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosed in a child?

Your child's healthcare provider will ask about your child's health history and symptoms. He or she will examine your child. Your child may need tests such as:

  • Blood and urine tests. Blood and urine are collected and tested in a lab.

  • Lymph node biopsy. A tiny piece of tissue, called a sample, is taken from the lymph nodes (or other abnormal areas). This is often done during surgery. The sample is tested for cancer cells. This type of biopsy is needed to diagnose NHL.

  • Chest X-ray. A chest X-ray shows the heart, lungs, and other parts of the chest. It can show NHL that has spread to lymph nodes in the chest. 

  • CT scan. This may be done to look at the abdomen, chest, and pelvis. A CT scan uses a series of X-rays and a computer to make detailed pictures of the inside of the body. Sometimes a dye is put in the blood to get clearer pictures.

  • MRI scan. An MRI uses large magnets, radio waves, and a computer to make detailed pictures of the inside of the body. This test can be used to check the brain and spinal cord. Or it may be used if the results of an X-ray or CT scan are unclear. 

  • Ultrasound. This is also called sonography. Sound waves and a computer are used to make pictures of blood vessels, tissues, and organs.

  • PET scan. For this test, a radioactive sugar is put into the bloodstream. Cancer cells use more sugar than normal cells, so the sugar will collect in cancer cells. A special camera is used to scan the whole body to see where the radioactive sugar has collected. A PET scan can sometimes spot cancer cells in different parts of the body, even when they can’t be seen by other tests. This test is often used together with a CT scan. This is called a PET/CT scan.

  • Bone marrow aspiration or biopsy. Bone marrow is a thick liquid found in the center of some bones. It’s where blood cells are made. A small amount of bone marrow may be removed with a needle. This is called aspiration. Sometimes solid bone marrow tissue is taken with a bigger needle. This is called a core biopsy. Bone marrow is usually removed from the hip bones. This test is done to see if cancer cells have reached the bone marrow.

  • Lumbar puncture. A long, thin needle is put into the lower back, between the bones of the spine, and into the spinal canal. This is the area around the spinal cord and brain that contains fluid, called cerebral spinal fluid or CSF. CSF cushions and supports the spinal cord and brain. A small amount of CSF is removed and tested for cancer cells

  • Pleural or peritoneal fluid sampling. Fluid is removed from around the lungs (pleura) or abdomen (peritoneum). The fluid is checked for cancer cells.           


Part of diagnosing cancer is called staging. Staging is the process of finding out how much cancer there is and if it has spread. Staging is used to decide the best treatment options. There are different ways of staging NHL. Talk with your child's healthcare provider about the stage of your child's cancer and what it means. The St. Jude system is most commonly used. It divides NHL into 4 stages:

  • Stage I (1). The lymphoma is in only 1 place. It’s either in lymph nodes in only 1 part of the body or is only 1 tumor that's not in lymph node. Stage I NHL is not in the chest or the abdomen (belly). 

  • Stage II (2). The lymphoma is not in the chest and is 1 of these:

    • The lymphoma is only 1 tumor and the lymph nodes close to it

    • It's in 2 or more places, but it’s all in either the upper or lower part of the body (either all above or all below the diaphragm)

    • The lymphoma started in the digestive tract and all of it can be removed with surgery, including any lymph nodes that have cancer in them


  • Stage III (3). Can be any of these:

    • The lymphoma is in both the upper and lower parts of the body (it's above and below the diaphragm)

    • It started in the chest

    • It started in the abdomen (belly) and is too widespread to be removed with surgery

    • There's lymphoma next to the spine and maybe in other parts of the body


  • Stage IV (4). The lymphoma is in the bone marrow or the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) when it's first found. It may also be in other parts of the body.

How is non-Hodgkin lymphoma treated in a child?

Treatment will depend on the type and stage. NHL can be treated with any of these:

  • Chemotherapy. Medicines that kill cancer cells or stop them from growing are used for this treatment. They may be given by IV (intravenous) into the vein, injected into tissue (as a shot), or taken by mouth. 

  • Radiation therapy. These are high-energy X-rays or other types of radiation. They're used to kill cancer cells or help keep them from growing.

  • Surgery. Surgery may be done to remove tumors.

  • Monoclonal antibodies. This is a type of targeted therapy that uses medicines to kill cancer cells without harming healthy cells.

  • High-dose chemotherapy with a stem cell transplant.  Young blood cells (called stem cells) are taken from the child or from someone else. The child is then given a large amount of chemotherapy to damage to the bone marrow. After the chemotherapy, the stem cells are replaced.

  • Supportive care. Treatment can cause side effects. Medicines and other treatments can be used to ease or help prevent side effects like pain, fever, infection, nausea, and vomiting.

  • Clinical trials. Ask your child's healthcare provider if there are any treatments being tested that may work well for your child. Most children with cancer are treated as part of a clinical trial.

Your child will need follow-up care during and after treatment to:

  • Check on their response to the treatment

  • Manage the side effects of treatment

  • Look for returning or spreading cancer

With treatment, most children with NHL go on to live long lives. With any cancer, how well a child is expected to recover (prognosis) varies. Keep in mind:           

  • Getting medical treatment right away is important for the best outcomes. 

  • Ongoing follow-up care during and after treatment is needed.

  • New treatments are being tested to improve outcome and to lessen side effects.

  • Over 80% of children with cancer are cured.

What are possible complications of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in a child?

Possible complications depend on the type and stage of the lymphoma. They also vary a lot based on where the lymphoma is and how it's treated. Problems can include things like:

  • Heart and blood vessel damage

  • Lung problems

  • Changes in thinking, learning, and memory

  • Increased chance of other cancers later in life

  • Trouble having children (infertility)

  • Developmental and growth delays

  • Death

Treatment may also cause side effects, such as:

  • Increased risk of bleeding

  • Increased risk for infection

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Poor appetite

  • Sores in the mouth

  • Hair loss

How can I help my child live with non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

You can help your child manage his or her treatment in many ways. For instance:

  • Get emotional support for your child. Find a counselor or child support group that can help.

  • Make sure your child goes to all follow-up appointments.

  • Your child may have trouble eating. A dietitian may be able to help.

  • Your child may be very tired. He or she will need to balance rest and activity. Encourage your child to get some exercise. This is good for overall health. And it may help to lessen tiredness.

  • If your child uses tobacco, help him or her quit. If your child doesn’t use tobacco, make sure he or she knows the dangers of it and doesn't start. 

When should I call my child’s healthcare provider?

Call the healthcare provider if your child has:

  • Symptoms that get worse

  • New symptoms

  • Side effects from treatment

Key points about non-Hodgkin lymphoma in children

  • NHL is a type of cancer in the lymphatic system. 

  • Symptoms depend on what part of the body is affected and where the tumor is. Common symptoms include painless swelling of lymph nodes, trouble breathing, night sweats, fever, and feeling tired.

  • A lymph node biopsy is needed to diagnose NHL. Many other tests are also done.

  • Treatment may include medicines, radiation, stem cell transplants, and surgery.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.