Home > Patients & Visitors > Health Library > Adult Hodgkin Lymphoma Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Patient Information [NCI]
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Adult Hodgkin lymphoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the lymph system.
Adult Hodgkin lymphoma is a type of cancer that develops in the lymph system. The lymph system is part of the immune system. It helps protect the body from infection and disease.
The lymph system is made up of the following:
Anatomy of the lymph system, showing the lymph vessels and lymph organs including lymph nodes, tonsils, thymus, spleen, and bone marrow. Lymph (clear fluid) and lymphocytes travel through the lymph vessels and into the lymph nodes where the lymphocytes destroy harmful substances. The lymph enters the blood through a large vein near the heart.
Lymph tissue is also found in other parts of the body, such as the lining of the digestive tract, bronchus, and skin.
There are two general types of lymphoma: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. This summary is about the treatment of adult Hodgkin lymphoma, including during pregnancy.
For information about Hodgkin lymphoma in children, adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma, or lymphoma in people who have acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), see the following PDQ summaries:
The two main types of Hodgkin lymphoma are classic and nodular lymphocyte-predominant.
Most Hodgkin lymphomas are the classic type. When a sample of lymph node tissue is looked at under a microscope, Hodgkin lymphoma cancer cells, called Reed-Sternberg cells, may be seen. The classic type is broken down into the following four subtypes:
Nodular lymphocyte-predominant Hodgkin lymphoma is rare and tends to grow slower than classic Hodgkin lymphoma. Nodular lymphocyte-predominant Hodgkin lymphoma often presents as a swollen lymph node in the neck, chest, armpit, or groin. Most people do not have any other signs or symptoms of cancer at diagnosis. Treatment is often different from classic Hodgkin lymphoma.
Being in early or late adulthood, being male, past Epstein-Barr infection, and a family history of Hodgkin lymphoma can increase the risk of adult Hodgkin lymphoma.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Risk factors for adult Hodgkin lymphoma include the following:
Signs and symptoms of adult Hodgkin lymphoma include swollen lymph nodes, fever, drenching night sweats, weight loss, and fatigue.
These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by adult Hodgkin lymphoma or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms that do not go away:
Fever for no known reason, weight loss for no known reason, and drenching night sweats are called B symptoms. B symptoms are an important part of staging Hodgkin lymphoma and understanding the patient's chance of recovery.
Tests that examine the lymph system and other parts of the body are used to help diagnose and stage adult Hodgkin lymphoma.
The results of the tests and procedures below also help make decisions about treatment.
These tests may include:
One of the following types of biopsies may be done:
Other areas of the body, such as the liver, lung, bone, bone marrow, and brain, may also have a sample of tissue removed and checked by a pathologist for signs of cancer.
The following test may be done on tissue that was removed:
For pregnant women with Hodgkin lymphoma, imaging tests that protect the unborn baby from the harms of radiation are used. These include:
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
The prognosis and treatment options depend on the following:
For Hodgkin lymphoma during pregnancy, treatment options also depend on:
Adult Hodgkin lymphoma can usually be cured if found and treated early.
After adult Hodgkin lymphoma has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the lymph system or to other parts of the body.
The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the lymph system or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage to plan treatment. The results of the tests and procedures done to diagnose and stage Hodgkin lymphoma are used to help make decisions about treatment.
There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.
Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:
The following stages are used for adult Hodgkin lymphoma:
Stage I adult lymphoma. Cancer is found in one or more lymph nodes in a group of lymph nodes or, in rare cases, cancer is found in the Waldeyer's ring, thymus, or spleen. In stage IE (not shown), cancer has spread to one area outside the lymph system.
Stage I adult Hodgkin lymphoma is divided into stages I and IE.
Stage II adult Hodgkin lymphoma is divided into stages II and IIE.
In stage II, the term bulky disease refers to a larger tumor mass. The size of the tumor mass that is referred to as bulky disease varies based on the type of lymphoma.
Stage III adult lymphoma. Cancer is found in groups of lymph nodes both above and below the diaphragm; or in a group of lymph nodes above the diaphragm and in the spleen.
In stage III adult Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer is found:
Stage IV adult lymphoma. Cancer (a) has spread throughout one or more organs outside the lymph system; or (b) is found in two or more groups of lymph nodes that are either above the diaphragm or below the diaphragm and in one organ that is outside the lymph system and not near the affected lymph nodes; or (c) is found in groups of lymph nodes above the diaphragm and below the diaphragm and in any organ that is outside the lymph system; or (d) is found in the liver, bone marrow, more than one place in the lung, or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). The cancer has not spread directly into the liver, bone marrow, lung, or CSF from nearby lymph nodes.
In stage IV adult Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer:
Adult Hodgkin lymphoma may be grouped for treatment as follows:
Early favorable adult Hodgkin lymphoma is stage I or stage II, without risk factors that increase the chance that the cancer will come back after it is treated.
Early unfavorable adult Hodgkin lymphoma is stage I or stage II with one or more of the following risk factors that increase the chance that the cancer will come back after it is treated:
Advanced Hodgkin lymphoma is stage III or stage IV. Advanced favorable Hodgkin lymphoma means that the patient has 0–3 of the risk factors below. Advanced unfavorable Hodgkin lymphoma means that the patient has 4 or more of the risk factors below. The more risk factors a patient has, the more likely it is that the cancer will come back after it is treated:
There are different types of treatment for patients with adult Hodgkin lymphoma.
Different types of treatment are available for patients with adult Hodgkin lymphoma. Some treatments are standard (currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
For pregnant women with Hodgkin lymphoma, treatment is carefully chosen to protect the unborn baby. Treatment decisions are based on the mother's wishes, the stage of the Hodgkin lymphoma, and the age of the unborn baby. The treatment plan may change as the signs and symptoms, cancer, and pregnancy change. Choosing the most appropriate cancer treatment is a decision that ideally involves the patient, family, and health care team.
Patients with Hodgkin lymphoma should have their treatment planned by a team of health care providers with expertise in treating lymphomas.
Treatment will be overseen by a medical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating cancer. The medical oncologist may refer you to other health care providers who have experience and expertise in treating adult Hodgkin lymphoma and who specialize in certain areas of medicine. These may include the following specialists:
Treatment for adult Hodgkin lymphoma may cause side effects.
For information about side effects that begin during treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.
Side effects from cancer treatment that begin after treatment and continue for months or years are called late effects. Treatment with chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy for Hodgkin lymphoma may increase the risk of second cancers and other health problems for many months or years after treatment. These late effects depend on the type of treatment and the patient's age when treated, and may include the following:
Regular follow-up by doctors who are experts in finding and treating late effects is important for the long-term health of patients treated for Hodgkin lymphoma.
Four types of standard treatment are used:
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses one or more drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. Cancer treatment using more than one chemotherapy drug is called combination chemotherapy. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy).
When a pregnant woman is treated with chemotherapy for Hodgkin lymphoma, it isn't possible to protect the unborn baby from being exposed to the chemotherapy. Some chemotherapy regimens may cause birth defects if given in the first trimester. Vinblastine is an anticancer drug that has not been linked with birth defects when given in the second or third trimester of pregnancy.
See Drugs Approved for Hodgkin Lymphoma for more information.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the area of the body with cancer. Sometimes total-body irradiation is given before a stem cell transplant.
Proton beam radiation therapy is a type of high-energy, external radiation therapy that uses streams of protons (tiny particles with a positive charge) to kill tumor cells. This type of treatment can lower the amount of radiation damage to healthy tissue near a tumor such as the heart or breast.
External radiation therapy is used to treat adult Hodgkin lymphoma and may also be used as palliative therapy to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.
For a pregnant woman with Hodgkin lymphoma, radiation therapy should be postponed until after delivery, if possible, to avoid any risk of radiation exposure to the unborn baby. If treatment is needed right away, the woman may decide to continue the pregnancy and receive radiation therapy. A lead shield is used to cover the pregnant woman's abdomen to help protect the unborn baby from radiation as much as possible.
Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to attack cancer cells. Targeted therapies may cause less harm to normal cells than chemotherapy or radiation therapy do.
Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses the patient's immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer. This type of cancer treatment is also called biotherapy or biologic therapy.
Immune checkpoint inhibitor. Checkpoint proteins, such as PD-L1 on tumor cells and PD-1 on T cells, help keep immune responses in check. The binding of PD-L1 to PD-1 keeps T cells from killing tumor cells in the body (left panel). Blocking the binding of PD-L1 to PD-1 with an immune checkpoint inhibitor (anti-PD-L1 or anti-PD-1) allows the T cells to kill tumor cells (right panel).
For pregnant patients with Hodgkin lymphoma, treatment options also include:
Watchful waiting is closely monitoring a patient's condition without giving any treatment unless signs or symptoms appear or change. Labor may be induced when the unborn baby is 32 to 36 weeks old so that the mother can begin treatment.
Steroids are hormones made naturally in the body by the adrenal glands and by reproductive organs. Some types of steroids are made in a laboratory. Certain steroid drugs have been found to help chemotherapy work better and help stop the growth of cancer cells. When an early delivery is likely, steroids can also help the lungs of the unborn baby develop faster than normal. This gives babies who are born early a better chance of survival.
New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Chemotherapy with stem cell transplant
High doses of chemotherapy are given to kill cancer cells. Healthy cells, including blood-forming cells, are also destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cell transplant is a treatment to replace the blood-forming cells. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient or a donor and are frozen and stored. After the patient completes chemotherapy and radiation therapy, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body's blood cells.
Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.
Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI's clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.
Follow-up tests may be needed.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.
Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
For information about the treatments listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.
Treatment of early favorable classic Hodgkin lymphoma in adults may include the following:
Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.
Treatment of early unfavorable classic Hodgkin lymphoma in adults may include the following:
Treatment of advanced classic Hodgkin lymphoma in adults may include the following:
Recurrent adult Hodgkin lymphoma is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the lymph system or in other parts of the body.
Treatment of recurrent classic Hodgkin lymphoma in adults may include the following:
Treatment of nodular lymphocyte–predominant Hodgkin lymphoma in adults may include the following:
Hodgkin Lymphoma During the First Trimester of Pregnancy
When Hodgkin lymphoma is diagnosed in the first trimester of pregnancy, it does not necessarily mean that the woman will be advised to end the pregnancy. Each woman's treatment will depend on the stage of the lymphoma, how fast it is growing, and her wishes. Treatment of Hodgkin lymphoma during the first trimester of pregnancy may include the following:
Hodgkin Lymphoma During the Second or Third Trimester of Pregnancy
When Hodgkin lymphoma is diagnosed in the second half of pregnancy, most women can delay treatment until after the baby is born. Treatment of Hodgkin lymphoma during the second or third trimester of pregnancy may include the following:
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about adult Hodgkin lymphoma, see the following:
For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:
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Clinical Trial Information
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Clinical trials can be found online at NCI's website. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service (CIS), NCI's contact center, at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
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PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Adult Hodgkin Lymphoma Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/lymphoma/patient/adult-hodgkin-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389245]
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Last Revised: 2020-04-03
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