Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia: Introduction

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2018

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about Waldenstrom's macrobulinemia and the parts of the body it may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia. Use the menu to see other pages. Think of that menu as a roadmap for this complete guide.

Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia is a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) that affects small lymphocytes, which are white blood cells.

About lymphoma and the lymph system

NHL is a term that refers to many types of cancer of the lymphatic system, which can have different symptoms and signs, physical findings, and treatment options.

The lymphatic system is made up of thin tubes that branch out to all parts of the body and helps fight infection. The lymphatic system carries lymph, a colorless fluid containing lymphocytes. Lymphocytes fight germs in the body. B-lymphocytes, also called B cells, make antibodies to fight bacteria. T-lymphocytes, or T cells, kill viruses and foreign cells and trigger the B cells to make antibodies.

Groups of bean-shaped organs called lymph nodes are located throughout the body at different sites in the lymphatic system. Lymph nodes are found in clusters in the abdomen, groin, pelvis, underarms, and neck. Other parts of the lymphatic system include the spleen, which makes lymphocytes and filters blood; the thymus, an organ under the breastbone; and the tonsils, located in the throat.

About Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia

Lymphoma begins when healthy cells in the lymphatic system change and grow out of control, which may form a tumor.

In Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia, the lymphocytes are similar in shape to plasma cells. Plasma cells make antibodies, which are specialized proteins that help make viruses and bacteria harmless to the body. One type of antibody made by plasma cells is called immunoglobulin M (IgM). Another name for Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia is lymphoplasmacytic lymphoma. It is classified as an indolent, or low-grade, type of lymphoma. Learn more about the subtypes of NHL.

Because lymphatic tissue is found in so many parts of the body, Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia can start almost anywhere and may spread to almost any organ in the body. When people are first diagnosed with the disease, it has usually already spread to the blood and bone marrow. It may also eventually affect the lymph nodes, liver, or spleen, and rarely the stomach, intestines, lungs, skin, or thyroid gland.

The term “Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia” usually is meant for those with high levels of IgM in the blood and who have lymphoplasmacytic lymphoma. Because of the similarity of Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia with some B-cell lymphomas or multiple myeloma, treatment can often be similar for these patients. You should talk with your health care team about the specific diagnosis and what treatment plan is best for you.

Looking for More of an Introduction?

If you would like more of an introduction, explore these related items. Please note that these links will take you to other sections on Cancer.Net:

  • ASCO Answers Fact Sheet: Read a 1-page fact sheet that offers an introduction to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. This fact sheet is available as a PDF, so it is easy to print out.

The next section in this guide is Statistics. It helps explain the number of people who are diagnosed with Waldenstrom's macroglobulinemia and general survival rates. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.