Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School



Diagnosis usually begins with a physical exam. Your doctor will check for swollen lymph nodes and organs throughout your body. He or she will look for general signs of disease. You will be asked about your health habits and past illnesses and treatments, too.

If your doctor suspects lymphoma, he or she will order blood tests to check the numbers and appearance of your blood cells (red cells, white cells and platelets). Sometimes the diagnosis can be made with a special blood test called flow cytometry. This test is a way to sort and identify the different types of cells in the blood, including cancerous lymph cells.

Your doctor will likely recommend a lymph node biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. In this test, all or part of a lymph node is removed using a needle or during minor surgery. A specialist then views the tissue under microscope to check for lymphoma.

You may also need other tests, such as CT scans or an MRI of your chest and abdomen and/or a positron emission tomography (PET) scan. Often a bone marrow biopsy is performed. During this test, your doctor removes a sample of bone and liquid bone marrow from the hipbone or breastbone. The samples are analyzed for signs of cancer.

These additional tests are done to determine the stage of lymphoma. The stages range from Stage I, in which the cancer is limited to one area, such as one lymph node, to Stage IV, in which the cancer is growing in many lymph nodes throughout your body or in the bone marrow or other organs.

Occasionally, laparoscopic surgery is done to help to determine the cancer's stage. In this procedure, your doctor makes a small incision in your abdomen, and uses a thin, lighted tube (a laparoscope) to see if cancer has spread to any internal organs. Small pieces of tissue also may be removed and examined under a microscope for signs of cancer.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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