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13 Lymphoma Symptoms: Important Signs of Lymphoma

8 min read

By Emily Lockhart

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Gerald Morris

Doctors say that the warning signs of lymphoma are often very subtle. So subtle that the most common symptoms are made up of health ailments that could very well be shrugged off as minor. That’s why experiencing one or 2 of these symptoms may not even spur a visit to a doctor visit.

However, if you experience multiple symptoms, it’s not time to panic, but it may be time to book a check up with your doctor. Thirteen warning symptoms associated with lymphoma are…

1. Swelling

Swelling can occur in lymphoma patients, depending on the bodily systems affected by the cancerous growth. For example, if a large lymphoma growth is blocking the vessels that carry blood to your upper body, you may experience swelling of the face, chest, or neck. This swelling can be severe, depending on the extent of inhibition to blood flow. It can also be painful, prompting patients to make a visit to their local emergency room.

Lymphoma also commonly affects the stomach and intestines, so similar swelling may occur if blood vessels in these parts of the body are blocked by malignant growths. This type of swelling can affect the stomach, intestines, bowels and/or abdomen, and it may cause a feeling of built-up pressure or pain. Patients may also experience abnormalities in their bowel movements and digestion, including diarrhea and loss of appetite.

2. Lumps

Enlarged lymph nodes or lumps that are painless to the touch rank among the most common (and most overlooked) symptoms of lymphoma. In both cases, these symptoms cause no discomfort, and may not even be immediately apparent. Older adults and people who are at increased risk of developing lymphoma should get in the habit of performing a monthly self-inspection to look for any suspicious growths or lumps that may be developing.

These symptoms are particularly problematic because many people don’t think they indicate something as serious as lymphoma, since the enlarged lymph nodes and lumps themselves are painless. Most patients figure that if they’re not in pain, then it’s highly likely that nothing is wrong. While this may be true most of the time, it isn’t true when it comes to lymphoma. Early detection is one of the keys to successful treatment, so be sure to visit your doctor if you detect these symptoms.

3. Pain

Every rule has its exceptions, and lymphoma isn’t exempt from this universal truth. While the disease is often painless in its initial stages, a minority of patients experience severe, even debilitating pain as malignancies develop in localized areas of the body. Pain presents most often in cases where the lymphoma is affecting one or more organs. For example, lymphoma of the brain may cause severe migraine headaches that are difficult to impossible to relieve. Similarly, patients suffering from lymphoma of the stomach may get severe stomach cramps.

As a general rule of thumb, any unexplained pain that persists for more than four days should be medically evaluated. Pain is your body’s way of telling you that there’s something wrong. So, if you start getting sudden migraines or stomach aches that don’t go away, you should see your doctor for evaluation.

4. Weight Loss

As with many other forms of cancer, lymphoma patients routinely experience unexplained and significant weight loss. This weight loss typically occurs over a fairly compressed time period, and patients can lose 10 to 15-pounds or more in the course of about six weeks. This weight loss takes place even in the absence of lifestyle modifications affecting the patient’s diet or activity levels.

Cancer-associated weight loss takes place for two main reasons. First, the growing tumors themselves have significant caloric requirements, and a significant portion of the food you eat inadvertently fuels malignancies. Second, the presence of cancer often affects a person’s appetite, leaving them feeling less hungry on a daily basis. This is particularly common if the cancer affects the stomach, intestines, or related bodily systems. Patients may also have trouble digesting food, leaving them feeling fuller for longer periods of time and resulting in greatly reduced caloric intake.

5. Lingering Fever

Just as swollen lymph nodes indicate that something is wrong, so too does the appearance of a fever that is not related to a cold, flu, or other known illness. People with lymphoma typically experience numerous symptoms relating to bodily temperature, including dramatic swings between lower and higher temperatures and recurrent bouts of fever. The bodily temperature fluctuations leave patients alternating between chills and sweats, making it very difficult for them to stay comfortable.

The symptoms of fever include a rising body temperature, swelling of the lymph nodes, a general feeling of being unwell (called “malaise” in the medical world), excessive sweating, changes in appetite, and fatigue. If you get a fever that keeps coming back for no apparent reason, especially if it is accompanied by painless swelling of the lymph nodes, be sure to visit a doctor to find out what’s going on.

6. Lack of Appetite

As a lymphoma growth increases in size and spreads throughout the body, it becomes increasingly likely to affect your appetite. These malignancies pirate your caloric intake, robbing your body of energy and nutrients before they can be delivered, resulting in a dramatic caloric deficit. As the lymphoma moves into your stomach and intestines, you may not feel like eating. Over time, your reduction in food intake will result in diminishing energy levels, and you may become sedentary and chronically fatigued.

While many people would consider sudden, effortless weight loss to be a good thing, the reality is that it is one of the more serious medical symptoms you can develop. If you find yourself losing weight and you haven’t made any significant changes to your usual diet or exercise routines, make a doctor’s appointment right away to investigate the root cause. It’s always better to know if something is wrong, and when it comes to serious diseases, the sooner you know, the better off you are.

7. Excessive Perspiration

Excessive sweating, known medically as hyperhidrosis, frequently occurs in lymphoma patients. The typical presentation of this symptom follows a particular pathology, in which patients tend to sweat a great deal during the night. Most patients report waking up suddenly to find themselves drenched in sweat, as though they had undergone intense physical exertion in hot and humid weather conditions.

This excessive sweating may also occur during the day, and you may find yourself releasing an unusually large volume of perspiration during light or moderate physical activity. However, in most cases, the hyperhidrosis is much more pronounced during the nighttime hours. Researchers aren’t quite sure why this is the case, but they believe it could be linked to immune system activity that takes place while you’re asleep. Sweating frequently can cause dehydration, which in turn causes headaches and depleted energy levels.

8. Weakness

As the lymphoma continues to grow and develop, you are likely to experience increasingly severe episodes of fatigue. Cancer cells literally drain your body of nutrients and energy as they develop, making it very difficult for patients to maintain their normal activity levels. This fatigue usually accompanies sudden, unexplained weight loss, indicating that the malignancy is trending in the wrong direction.

Another part of the reason that cancer patients experience such extreme fatigue is that it takes your immune system a lot of energy to fight off a malignant growth. Thus, not only is the cancerous growth robbing your body of badly needed energy but also your body is committing most of its available energy resources to fighting the cancer. This leaves you with very little energy left over, and as a result, you’ll feel exhausted for no immediately identifiable reason, even simple activities will leave you feeling spent.

9. Irritated Skin

As lymphoma cells develop and mature, they secrete chemical byproducts that can cause telltale skin symptoms. These symptoms include small, acne-like lesions known as papules, which appear in clusters. Most papule clusters develop in parts of the body most immediately and heavily affected by the lymphoma malignancy. These chemical secretions also cause itching and general irritation of the skin, which usually affects the patient’s entire body. However, it is common for itching to be most severe in a relatively localized area.

The definitive characteristic of this itching and irritation is that it occurs without any noticeable underlying cause, and it is not accompanied by a rash. Topical treatments may provide temporary relief, but because the itching is being caused by chemicals originating in the bloodstream, this relief is usually very short-lived. Sometimes, this itching can be so severe that patients cause significant damage to their own skin by scratching heavily affected areas.

10. Breathlessness

Lymphoma patients commonly complain about shortness of breath, a condition which is caused by the swelling of lymph nodes. As they enlarge, the lymph nodes affect the patient’s respiratory system, preventing them from drawing full, normal breaths. The end result is that patients feel winded for no reason at all. Even sedentary activities like watching television or reading can leave someone suffering from lymphoma literally out of breath.

Related symptoms include sharp, recurrent chest pain and a constant cough, which seems to have no external cause. For obvious reasons, these symptoms are often much more severe in smokers than non-smokers. If you’re finding yourself feeling winded and you have enlarged lymph nodes that aren’t sore or tender, visit your doctor right away. Lymphoma rates are, unfortunately, on the rise. Yet, many people aren’t aware that this form of cancer is becoming more common, and they often don’t associate these symptoms with malignancies.

11. Headaches

As touched on earlier, lymphoma of the brain—also called primary brain lymphomas—can cause severe headaches. These headaches may be minor at first, but as the cancer grows, putting additional pressure on the brain, they tend to worsen. Livestrong notes these headaches also tend to be most severe first thing in the morning.

Headaches aren’t the only symptom that can occur with lymphomas of the brain. The American Cancer Society indicates that other common ones include “trouble thinking, weakness in parts of the body, personality changes, and sometimes seizures.”

12. Bone Pain

Another part of the body where lymphoma can develop is in the bone marrow, although this does not typically occur until stage 4 of the disease. When cancer cells have developed in the bone marrow, bone pain typically occurs, often in areas such as the legs, pelvis, spine, and ribs.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, this type of lymphoma can “cause low blood cell counts,” and lead to persistent or frequently recurring infections, easy bruising or bleeding, and fatigue, as discussed earlier.

13. Lymph Node Pain After Drinking Alcohol

Although in most cases swollen lymph nodes do not cause a person with lymphoma any pain, it’s possible for some individuals to experience pain in the area, particularly after consuming alcohol. indicates that pain in the lymph nodes after drinking alcohol tends to be more common in those with Hodgkin lymphoma (as opposed to non-Hodgkin lymphoma). And while it is not entirely known why this occurs, the source explains that one theory believes “pain is related to the expanding of the vessels within the lymph node capsule following exposure to alcohol in the bloodstream.”

MD, Family Medicine, Internal Medicine

Gerald Morris, MD is a family medicine/internal medicine physician with over 20 years expertise in the medical arena. Dr. Morris has spent time as a clinician, clinical research coordinator/manager, medical writer, and instructor. He is a proponent of patient education as a tool in the diagnosis and treatment of acute and chronic medical conditions.

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