Lymphoma - Non-Hodgkin: Symptoms and Signs

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about body changes and other things that can signal a problem that may need medical care. To see other pages, use the menu.

People with NHL may experience a variety of symptoms. However, many people, especially those with follicular lymphoma, small lymphocytic lymphoma, marginal zone lymphoma, and indolent subtypes, will have no symptoms. Conditions other than lymphoma can also cause many of these symptoms.

There are very few changes, or symptoms, that are specific to lymphoma. This explains why it is sometimes difficult to make a diagnosis. The symptoms of NHL depend on where the cancer started and the organ that is involved.

General symptoms:

  • Enlarged lymph nodes in the abdomen, groin, neck, or underarms

  • Enlarged spleen or liver

  • Fever that cannot be explained by an infection or other illness

  • Weight loss with no known cause

  • Sweating and chills

  • Fatigue

Examples of symptoms related to a specific tumor location:

  • A tumor in the abdomen can cause a stretched belly or pain in the back or abdomen.

  • A tumor in the center of the chest may press on the trachea and cause coughing, chest pain, difficulty breathing, or other respiratory problems.

If you are concerned about any changes you experience, please talk with your doctor. Your doctor will ask you how long and often you’ve been experiencing the symptoms, in addition to other questions. This is to help find out the cause of the problem, called a diagnosis.

If NHL is diagnosed, your doctor may also use certain symptoms to help describe the disease, called staging. For many decades, doctors divided each stage of NHL into “A” and “B” categories based on specific symptoms, as listed below. However, the most recent staging system published in 2014, known as the Lugano Classification, removed these categories because they do not necessarily affect treatment.

  • A means that a person has not experienced B symptoms.

  • means that a person experienced the following symptoms:

    • Unexplained weight loss of more than 10% of their original body weight during the 6 months before diagnosis.

    • Unexplained fever with temperatures above 100.4ºF (38ºC).

    • Drenching night sweats. Most patients say that either their nightclothes or the sheets on the bed are actually wet. Sometimes, heavy sweating occurs during the day.

Once a doctor diagnoses and stages NHL, relieving symptoms remains an important part of cancer care and treatment. This may also be called symptom management, palliative care, or supportive care. Be sure to talk with your health care team about symptoms you experience, including any new symptoms or a change in symptoms.

The next section in this guide is Diagnosis. It explains what tests may be needed to learn more about the cause of the symptoms. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.