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Malignant Lymphomas

Overview :

The lymph system is made up of ducts or tubules that carry lymph to all parts of the body. Lymph is a milky fluid that contains the lymphocytes or white blood cells. These are the infection-fighting cells of the blood. Small pea-shaped organs are found along the network of lymph vessels. These are called the lymph nodes, and their main function is to make and store the lymphocytes. Clusters of lymph nodes are found in the pelvis region, underarm, neck, chest, and abdomen. The spleen (an organ in the upper abdomen), the tonsils, and the thymus (a small organ found beneath the breastbone) are part of the lymphatic system.

The lymphocyte is the main cell of the lymphoid tissue. There are two main types of lymphocytes: the T lymphocyte and the B lymphocyte. Lymphomas develop from these two cell types. B cell lymphomas are more common among adults, while among children, the incidence of T and B cell lymphomas are almost equal.

The T and the B cell perform different jobs within the immune system. When an infectious bacterium enters the body, the B cell makes proteins called "antibodies." These antibodies attach themselves to the bacteria, and flag them for destruction by other immune cells. The T cells help protect the body against viruses. When a virus enters the cell, it generally produces certain proteins that are projected on the surface of the infected cell. T cells recognize these proteins and produce certain substances (cytokines) that destroy the infected cells. Some of the cytokines made by the T cells attract other cell types, which are capable of digesting the virus-infected cell. The T cells can also destroy some types of cancerous cells.

Lymphomas can be divided into two main types: Hodgkin's lymphoma or Hodgkin's disease, and non-Hodgkin's lymphomas. There are at least 10 types of non-Hodgkin's lymphomas. They are grouped (staged) by how aggressively they grow; slow growing (low grade), intermediate growing, and rapidly growing (high grade); and how far they spread.

A majority of non-Hodgkin's lymphomas begin in the lymph nodes. About 20% start in other organs, such as the lungs, liver or the gastrointestinal tract. Malignant lymphocytes multiply uncontrollably and do not perform their normal functions. Hence, the body's ability to fight infections is affected. In addition, these malignant cells may crowd the bone marrow, and, depending on the stage, prevent the production of normal red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. A low red blood cell count causes anemia, while a reduction in the number of platelets makes the person susceptible to excessive bleeding. Cancerous cells can also invade other organs through the circulatory system of the lymph, causing those organs to malfunction.

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