Defining Hodgkin's Lymphoma

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Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system, is perhaps the most studied and researched cancer in human history. More time and energy and resources have gone into understanding Hodgkin's lymphoma than any other cancer. Why?

The short, simplistic answer probably has something to do with the fact that pioneering research scientists in the 1950s saw a glimmer of hope when they began testing different ideas on how to fight the cancer, and those early successes possibly fueled a greater interest in the disease. Instead of working on a solid tumor cancer and making no progress, those working on Hodgkin's were seeing real progress. In fact, the first combination chemotherapy regimen was developed for Hodgkin's lymphoma back around 1970.

Today Hodgkin's Lymphoma is treated with combination chemotherapy, involved-field radiation, antibody drug-conjugates, and occasionally, with bone marrow transplants.

It remains a very rare disease, with around 9,100 new cases diagnosed in the United States each year. The success of treatment has led to a cure rate for all stages of Hodgkin's lymphoma of approximately 75 to 80 percent. Early-stage cancers here have a 91 percent success rate.

Hodgkin's Defined

Hodgkin's is a cancer of the white blood cells (B-cells), but it is very different from non-Hodgkin's lymphomas, as well as other blood cancers like leukemia. Hodgkin's is defined by the presence of a specific kind of cell today known as the Reed-Sternberg cell.

Reed-Sternberg cells

Reed-Sternberg cells are abnormal cells that only appear in patients with Hodgkin's lymphoma. They are very large lymphocytes that often have more than one nucleus. In an overwhelming number of cases, Reed-Sternberg cells appear and signify Classical Hodgkin's lymphoma. In a very, very small subset of patients, Reed-Sternberg cells do not appear; instead large, abnormal Hodgkin's cells appear. This is known as lymphocyte-predominant Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

Disease Progression

Hodgkin's is also defined by the orderly progression of the disease. Unlike other lymphomas, which have no direction when they spread, and it is impossible to predict where the disease will go next, Hodgkin's is very reliable that way. It has a very orderly progression, one that physicians can count on and use to treat accordingly.


Finally, Hodgkin's can be loosely defined by its symptoms: Swollen and painless lymph nodes, unexplained fevers, night sweats, unexplained weight loss, itchy skin, and (sometimes) lymph node pain when consuming alcohol.

Despite all the advances against Hodgkin's and the high treatment success rate, at least 1,000 people in the US die each year from Hodgkin's, so it remains a potentially fatal disease.

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