Diagnosing Hodgkin lymphoma 

If you see your GP because you're concerned about symptoms of Hodgkin lymphoma, they'll ask about your health and carry out a simple physical examination.

If necessary, your GP will refer you to hospital for further tests.

In 2015, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published guidelines to help GPs recognise the signs and symptoms of Hodgkin lymphoma and refer people for the right tests faster.

To find out if you should be referred for further tests for suspected Hodgkin lymphoma, read the NICE 2015 guidelines on Suspected cancer: recognition and referral.

If you're referred to hospital, a biopsy will usually be carried out, as this is the only way to confirm a diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma.

Biopsy

biopsy involves removing some or all of an affected lymph node, which is then studied in a laboratory.

Biopsies are small operations that can often be carried out under a local anaesthetic (where the area is numbed). In some cases, the affected lymph node isn't easily accessible and a general anaesthetic may be required (where you're asleep).

A pathologist (an expert in the study of diseased tissue) will then check the tissue sample for the presence of cancerous cells. If they find cancerous cells, they can also identify exactly which type of Hodgkin lymphoma you have, which is an important factor in planning your treatment.

Further testing

If a biopsy confirms a diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma, further testing will be needed to check how far the lymphoma has spread. This allows a doctor to diagnose the stage of your lymphoma.

Further tests may include:

  • blood tests – samples of blood will be taken throughout your diagnosis and treatment to check your general health, the levels of red and white cells and platelets in your blood, and how well organs such as your liver and kidneys are working
  • bone marrow sample – another biopsy may be carried out to see if the cancer has spread to your bone marrow; this involves using a long needle to remove a sample of bone marrow from your pelvis and can be done using a local anaesthetic
  • chest X-ray – this can check whether the cancer has spread to your chest or lungs
  • computerised tomography (CT) scan – this scan takes a series of X-rays that build up a 3D picture of the inside of the body to check the spread of the cancer
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan – this scan uses strong magnetic fields to build up a detailed picture of areas of your body, to check the spread of the cancer
  • positron emission tomography (PET) scan – this scan measures the activity of cells in different parts of the body and can check the spread of the cancer and the impact of treatment; it's usually taken at the same time as a CT scan to show precisely how the tissues of different sites of the body are working

Stages of Hodgkin lymphoma

When testing is complete, it should be possible to determine the stage of your lymphoma. "Staging" means scoring the cancer by how far it's spread.

The main stages of Hodgkin lymphoma are:

  • stage 1 – the cancer is limited to one group of lymph nodes, such as your neck or groin nodes either above or below your diaphragm (the sheet of muscle underneath the lungs)
  • stage 2 – two or more lymph node groups are affected, either above or below the diaphragm
  • stage 3 – the cancer has spread to lymph node groups above and below the diaphragm 
  • stage 4 – the cancer has spread through the lymphatic system and is now present in organs or bone marrow

Health professionals also add the letters "A" or "B" to your stage, to indicate whether or not you have certain symptoms.

"A" is put after your stage if you have no additional symptoms other than swollen lymph nodes. "B" is put after your stage if you have additional symptoms of weight loss, fever or night sweats.

Read about preparing for and understanding your cancer test results.

Page last reviewed: 15/10/2015

Next review due: 15/10/2017