I’ve been anxiously awaiting my formal diagnosis for a number of reasons, one of them being that I could describe the specifics of my cancer in a blog. But, it looks like my diagnosis is going to be delayed again (will explain why later in the post) so now is as good a time as any to explain lymphoma!
To be honest, I had no idea what lymphoma or how the word Hodgkins related to it at all before being told two weeks ago that I have it. But based on the scans revealing a large mass in my chest, along with smaller ones at the base of my neck and shoulders, every doctor has said it’s 100% lymphoma.
I other words, cancer of the lymph system.
Now, I am stil all learning this information too, so forgive me if it’s still fuzzy on a few details.
The lymphatic system is considered part of the circulatory system that moves “lymph,” a fluid that comes from the blood and returns to the blood.
“Lymph nodes” are probably the term you are most familiar with. They are clusters the size of small kidney beans that are located near strategic veins throughout the body such as the knee, elbow, armpit, groin, neck, abdomen, and chest.
Lymph nodes are important because it’s where blood is cleaned and filtered through. Germ cells and germ-fighting cells gather at the lymph nodes during illness (which is why you may notice swelling in the above areas when sick!). They also prevent bacteria, cancer, or other infections from entering the blood and circulating through the system
The lymph nodes act as an area that produce and store white blood cells, which are very, very important do your body’s immune function.
Still with me?
So that’s the lymphatic system, what does cancer of that system look like?
Well, there are many kinds of cancers of the lymphatic system, which are divided into Hodgkins and Non-Hodgkins. Both start in the lymphocytes, which are those infection-fighting white blood cells that travel through the system in the lymph fluid. Lymphocytes are developed in the bone marrow until they mature and go into the lymphatic system – this is why lymphoma can mean leukemia too!
Hodgkins lymphoma starts in a group of lymph nodes anywhere in the body, but most commonly in the neck. It grows in a predictable, orderly way from one lymph node group to the next, but can eventually spread to almost any organ in the body through the lymphatic system or bloodstream. Hodgkins is diagnosed with the existence of something called Reed-Sternberg cells, derived from a “B” lymphocyte cell, when looked at under a microscope. Hodgkins is one of the most treatable cancers there is because it grows so predictably and responds really well to chemotherapy. I’ve heard survival rates from 95-98%.
Non-Hodgkins is a little trickier and a lot more common. It starts in the lymphocytes, in one of two cells: the T cells, or B cells. It often forms tumours, most commonly in the neck, and can also spread to any organ through the bloodstream. There are many more kinds of Non-Hodgkins lymphoma (I’ve read 20-50 kinds) depending on which cell it affects, and how those cells act in the body. Non-Hodgkins reacts really well to treatment too, but can be trickier to predict its growth.
That also why I’m (im)patiently waiting to hear a formal diagnosis on what kind of lymphoma I have, because every person is treated differently with their own individual chemo cocktail. But I’m ready to get the ball rolling on chemo already!
Unfortunately, the surgery I had on Monday didn’t pull enough live cell samples to be able to make a diagnosis. Well, according to preliminary pathology report anyways. As my doctor explained it, lymphoma can sometimes grow so quickly, the body doesn’t have enough resources to keep those cancer cells alive. Having dead cancer cells aren’t necessary a “good” thing, because I do still have an unwanted mass in my chest, and I do still have live clusters of cancer cells that are growing and spreading.
The only two “hot spots” of live cells in my body are under my right armpit, and around the main vein that goes into my heart. I’m scheduled to go into surgery tomorrow to have that lymph node in my right armpit removed, which I hope (!!!!) will be enough to finally get a diagnosis. The only other option is opening my chest and getting cells from around my heart, which is so scary I can’t even begin to fathom that option.
Anyways, that is where I am at right now. After weeks of nothing but good news, this latest setback hit me hard. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know I hatehatehate surgery. But like I said from the beginning, one test at a time. One piece of news at a time. Big picture and all the “what-ifs” are likely to weigh me down so much I will sink.
Remember the days when I was blissfuly unaware of all of this?