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Hodgkin Lymphoma Explained

Hodgkin lymphoma is a relatively rare type of lymphoma first identified in the 1830s by the English doctor Thomas Hodgkin.

After the development of the microscope (in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) two scientist called Reed and Sternberg studied tissue samples of people with Hodgkin lymphoma and found a particular type of cell was always present. This cell – now called the Reed-Sternberg cell - is larger than other lymphocytes and is described as a “mirror cell” because it looks like a cell joining to its mirror image. It is the presence of Reed-Sternberg cells that distinguishes Hodgkin lymphoma from other types of lymphomas.

Whilst NHL refers to a wide range of illnesses that all behave in slightly different ways, Hodgkin lymphoma is more distinct and more predictable in its behaviour. Compared to NHL, Hodgkin lymphoma looks different when viewed under the microscope, responds to different treatments and is generally easier to successfully treat.

Reed-Sternberg Cells


The large cells with large, pale nuclei (cell centres) containing
large purple nucleoli at the arrowheads are Reed-Sternberg cells
that indicate the presence of Hodgkin lymphoma disease.

How common is Hodgkin lymphoma?

In Australia, approximately 400 people are diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma each year. It is a rare disease, accounting for 0.5% of all cancer types diagnosed...

Hodgkin lymphoma can occur in various age groups. In developed countries, it is most likely to occur:

  • Between the ages of 15 - 25 years old, or after the age of 65 years old
  • In young adults, it occurs in similar numbers of males and females
  • In older adults, it is more likely to occur in males

Hodgkin lymphoma is slightly more likely to occur in people who have had glandular fever and those with a relative who has had Hodgkin Lymphoma. This does not mean that another family member will definitely get the disease, but rather that other family members have a slightly higher risk of getting Hodgkin Lymphoma compared to the general population.

How does Hodgkin lymphoma develop?

Currently, it is not known how Hodgkin lymphoma develops and research continues to investigate the cause of the disease. However it is thought that the malignant (cancer) cells grow due to an abnormal immune response from a past infection e.g. the Epstein Barr virus which causes glandular fever. Other people who develop Hodgkin lymphoma may have a genetic tendency to abnormal immune responses.

What is known is that Hodgkin lymphoma is not contagious - you cannot "catch it" from someone nor can you give it to someone else. There is no evidence to suggest that anything you have done or not done (such as lifestyle choices) will cause the development of Hodgkin lymphoma.