Lymphoma - Non-Hodgkin: Symptoms and Signs

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 03/2021

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

People with NHL may experience a variety of symptoms or signs. A symptom is something that only the person experiencing it can identify and describe, such as fatigue, nausea, or pain. A sign is something that other people can identify and measure, such as a fever, rash, or an elevated pulse. Together, signs and symptoms can help describe a medical problem. However, many people, especially those with follicular lymphoma, small lymphocytic lymphoma, marginal zone lymphoma, and indolent subtypes, will have no symptoms or signs. And, conditions that are not lymphoma can also cause many of the symptoms and signs of NHL.

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.

  • An enlarged spleen may cause back pain and a feeling that the stomach is full.

  • A tumor in the groin may cause swelling in the legs.

  • A tumor in the underarms may cause swelling in the arms.

  • If the lymphoma spreads to the brain, there may be symptoms similar to those of a stroke.

  • 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 figure 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 change the way the lymphoma is treated.

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

  • B 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 soaked. Sometimes, heavy sweating occurs during the day.

Once a doctor diagnoses and finds out the stage of NHL, relieving symptoms remains an important part of cancer care and treatment. This may be called palliative care or supportive care. It is often started soon after diagnosis and continued throughout treatment. Most B symptoms are relieved or go away once lymphoma treatment begins. Be sure to talk with your health care team about the symptoms and signs 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. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.