ON THIS PAGE: You will learn about the different types of treatments doctors use to treat children with NHL. Use the menu to see other pages.
In general, cancer in children is uncommon. This means it can be hard for doctors to plan treatments unless they know what has been most effective in other children. That is why more than 60% of children with cancer are treated as part of a clinical trial. A clinical trial is a research study that tests a new approach to treatment. The “standard of care” is the best treatments known based on research studies. Clinical trials may test such approaches as a new drug, a new combination of existing treatments, or new doses of current therapies. The health and safety of all children participating in clinical trials are closely monitored.
To take advantage of these newer treatments, children and teens with cancer ideally should be treated at a specialized pediatric cancer center. Doctors at these centers have extensive experience in treating children with cancer and have access to the latest research. A doctor who specializes in treating children with cancer is called a pediatric oncologist. If a pediatric cancer center is not nearby, general cancer centers sometimes have pediatric specialists who are able to be part of your child’s care.
How childhood NHL is treated
In many cases, a team of doctors works with a child and the family to provide care. This is called a multidisciplinary team. Pediatric cancer centers often have extra support services for children and their families, such as child life specialists, dietitians, physical and occupational therapists, social workers, and counselors. Special activities and programs to help your child and family cope may also be available. These services can reduce emotional pain and financial concerns, and they should be used to the fullest extent possible.
The common types of treatments used for NHL are described below. Your child's care plan also includes treatment for symptoms and side effects, an important part of cancer care.
There are 4 main types of treatment used for NHL in children: chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation therapy, and stem cell/bone marrow transplantation. Sometimes, the treatments are used in combination. Treatment for childhood NHL often involves hospital stays during treatment cycles and supportive care (1 to 2 weeks).
Treatment options and recommendations depend on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, possible side effects, and the family’s preferences and overall health. Take time to learn about your child’s treatment options and be sure to ask questions about things that are unclear. Talk with your child’s doctor about the goals of each treatment and what your child can expect while receiving the treatment. These types of talks are called "shared decision-making." Shared decision-making is when you and your doctors work together to choose treatments that fit the goals of your child's care. Shared decision-making is particularly important for NHL because there are different treatment options. Learn more about making treatment decisions.
Therapies using medication
Treatments using medication are used to destroy cancer cells. Medication may be given through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout the body. When a drug is given this way, it is called systemic therapy. Medication may also be given locally, which is when the medication is applied directly to the cancer or kept in a single part of the body.
This type of medication is generally prescribed by a medical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating cancer with medication.
Medications are often given through an intravenous (IV) tube placed into a vein using a needle or as a pill or capsule that is swallowed (orally). If your child is given oral medications, be sure to ask your child's health care team about how to safely store and handle it.
The types of medications used for lymphoma include:
Each of these types of therapies is discussed below in more detail. A person may receive only 1 type of medication at a time or a combination of medications given at the same time. They can also be given as part of a treatment plan that includes surgery and/or radiation therapy.
The medications used to treat cancer are continually being evaluated. Talking with your child’s doctor is often the best way to learn about the medications prescribed for your child, their purpose, and their potential side effects or interactions with other medications.
It is also important to let your doctor know if your child is taking any other prescription or over-the-counter medications or supplements. Herbs, supplements, and other drugs can interact with cancer medications, causing unwanted side effects or reduced effectiveness. Learn more about your child’s prescriptions by using searchable drug databases.
Chemotherapy is the primary treatment for NHL. Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to destroy cancer cells, usually by keeping the cancer cells from growing, dividing, and making more cells.
In some cases, chemotherapy may be injected into the cerebral spinal fluid (CSF), which is the fluid in and around the brain and spinal cord. Chemotherapy delivered by any of these ways eventually enters the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout the body.
A chemotherapy regimen, or schedule, usually consists of a specific number of cycles given over a set period of time. A patient may receive 1 drug at a time or a combination of different drugs given at the same time.
Chemotherapy used for NHL may include:
Doxorubicin (available as a generic drug)
Vinblastine (available as a generic drug)
Prednisone (multiple brand names)
Mercaptopurine (Purinethol, Purixan)
Methotrexate (Rheumatrex, Trexall)
Because chemotherapy attacks rapidly dividing cells, including those in normal tissues such as the hair, lining of the mouth, intestines, and bone marrow, children receiving chemotherapy may lose their hair, develop mouth sores, or have nausea and vomiting. In addition, chemotherapy may lower the body’s resistance to infection, lead to increased bruising and bleeding, and cause fatigue. These side effects can be managed during treatment and usually go away after chemotherapy is completed. The severity of the side effects depends on the type and amount of the drug being given and the length of time the child receives the drug.
Learn more about the basics of chemotherapy.
Targeted therapy (updated 11/2022)
Targeted therapy is a treatment that targets the cancer’s specific genes, proteins, or the tissue environment that contributes to cancer growth and survival. This type of treatment blocks the growth and spread of cancer cells and limits damage to healthy cells.
Not all tumors have the same targets. To find the most effective treatment, your doctor may run tests to identify the genes, proteins, and other factors in your tumor. This helps doctors better match each patient with the most effective treatment whenever possible. In addition, research studies continue to find out more about specific molecular targets and new treatments directed at them. Learn more about the basics of targeted treatments.
Targeted therapy for NHL may include rituximab (Rituxan), an antibody that is often used to specifically target proteins on B-cell lymphomas, or brentuximab vedotin (Adcetris), an antibody-drug conjugate that attaches to targets on cancer cells and releases a small amount of chemotherapy or other toxin directly into the tumor cells. For children with previously untreated, high-risk NHL, brentuximab vedotin combined with chemotherapy may be recommended.
Newly developed drugs that target other specific mutations in cancer cells, such as crizotinib (Xalkori), may be offered as part of a clinical trial for treatment of newly diagnosed NHL or as a treatment for lymphoma that has come back after treatment. Targeted agents can often have fewer side effects, but they may not be an appropriate treatment for your child's type of NHL. Your child’s doctor may decide to use a specific drug based on the subtype or stage.
Talk with your doctor about possible side effects for a specific medication and how they can be managed.
Bone marrow transplantation/stem cell transplantation
A bone marrow transplant is a medical procedure in which bone marrow that contains cancer is replaced by highly specialized cells. These cells, called hematopoietic stem cells, develop into healthy bone marrow. Hematopoietic stem cells are blood-forming cells found both in the bloodstream and in the bone marrow. This procedure is also called a stem cell transplant or hematopoietic stem cell transplant.
Before recommending transplantation, doctors will talk with the patient about the risks of this treatment. They will also consider several other factors, such as the type of NHL, results of any previous treatment, and the patient’s age and general health.
There are 2 types of hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, depending on the source of the replacement blood stem cells: allogeneic (ALLO) and autologous (AUTO). ALLO uses donated stem cells, while AUTO uses the patient’s own stem cells. In both types, the goal is to destroy all of the cancer cells in the marrow, blood, and other parts of the body using high doses of chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy and then allow replacement blood stem cells to create healthy bone marrow.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays or other particles to destroy cancer cells. A doctor who specializes in giving radiation therapy to treat cancer is called a radiation oncologist. The most common type of radiation therapy is called external-beam radiation therapy, which is radiation given from a machine outside the body. A radiation therapy regimen, or schedule, usually consists of a specific number of treatments given over a set period of time.
Radiation therapy for NHL in children is generally used only in emergency or life-threatening situations. For example, it may be used to treat pressure from a tumor on the windpipe or spinal cord. Also, it may be used if the lymphoma affects the central nervous system (CNS; brain and spine) at the time of diagnosis.
Side effects from radiation therapy include fatigue, mild skin reactions, upset stomach, and loose bowel movements. Most side effects go away soon after treatment is finished. Learn more about the basics of radiation therapy.
Physical, emotional, and social effects of cancer
Cancer and its treatment cause physical symptoms and side effects, as well as emotional, social, and financial effects. Managing all of these effects is called palliative care or supportive care. It is an important part of your child's care that is included along with treatments intended to slow, stop, or eliminate the cancer.
Palliative care focuses on improving how your child feels during treatment by managing symptoms and supporting patients and their families with other, non-medical needs. Any person, regardless of age or type and stage of cancer, may receive this type of care. It often works best when it is started right after a cancer diagnosis. People who receive palliative care along with treatment for the cancer often have less severe symptoms, better quality of life, and report that they are more satisfied with treatment.
Palliative treatments vary widely and often include medication, nutritional changes, relaxation techniques, emotional and spiritual support, and other therapies. Your child may also receive palliative treatments similar to those meant to get rid of the cancer, such as chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation therapy.
Before treatment begins, talk with your child's doctor about the goals of each treatment being recommended in the treatment plan. You should also talk about the possible side effects of the specific treatment plan and palliative care options. Many patients also benefit from talking with a social worker and participating in support groups. Ask your doctor about these resources, too.
During treatment, your child's health care team may ask you to answer questions about your child's symptoms and side effects and to describe each problem. Be sure to tell the health care team if your child is experiencing a problem. This helps the health care team treat any symptoms and side effects as quickly as possible. It can also help prevent more serious problems in the future.
Remission and the chance of recurrence
A remission is when NHL cannot be detected in the body and there are no symptoms. This may also be called having “no evidence of disease” or NED.
A remission may be temporary or permanent. This uncertainty causes many people to worry that the cancer will come back. While many remissions are permanent, it is important to talk with your child’s doctor about the possibility of the cancer returning. Understanding your child’s risk of recurrence and the treatment options may help you feel more prepared if the NHL does return. Learn more about coping with the fear of recurrence.
If the cancer returns after the original treatment, it is called recurrent cancer. It may come back in the same place (called a local recurrence), nearby (regional recurrence), or in another place (distant recurrence).
When this occurs, a new cycle of testing will begin again to learn as much as possible about the recurrence. After this testing is done, your child’s doctor will talk with you about the treatment options. Often the treatment plan will include the therapies described above, such as chemotherapy and bone marrow/stem cell transplantation, but they may be used in a different combination or given at a different pace. Your child’s doctor may suggest clinical trials that are studying new ways to treat this type of recurrent cancer. Whichever treatment plan you choose, palliative care will be important for relieving symptoms and side effects.
The choice of treatment for recurrent NHL depends on 3 factors:
Whether the tumor came back in the same place or in another part of the body
The type of treatment the child had for the original tumor
The overall health of the child
People with recurrent cancer sometimes experience emotions such as disbelief or fear. You are encouraged to talk with your child's health care team about these feelings and ask about support services to help you cope. Learn more about dealing with cancer recurrence.
If treatment does not work
Although treatment is successful for many children with NHL, sometimes it is not. If a child’s cancer cannot be cured or controlled, this is called advanced or terminal cancer. This diagnosis is stressful, and advanced cancer may be difficult to discuss. However, it is important to have open and honest conversations with your child’s health care team to express your family’s feelings, preferences, and concerns. The health care team has special skills, experience, and knowledge to support patients and their families and is there to help.
Hospice care is designed to provide the best possible quality of life for people who are expected to live less than 6 months. Parents or guardians are encouraged to talk with the health care team about hospice care options, which include hospice care at home, a special hospice center, or other health care locations. Nursing care and special equipment can make staying at home a workable option for many families. Some children may be happier and more comfortable if they can attend school part-time or keep up other activities and social connections. The child’s health care team can help parents or guardians decide on an appropriate level of activity. Making sure a child is physically comfortable and free from pain is extremely important as part of end-of-life care. Learn more about caring for a terminally ill child and advanced cancer care planning.
The death of a child is an enormous tragedy, and families may need support to help them cope with the loss. Pediatric cancer centers often have professional staff and support groups to help with the process of grieving. Learn more on grieving the loss of a child.
The next section in this guide is About Clinical Trials. It offers more information about research studies that are focused on finding better ways to care for people with cancer. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.