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Classifying and Staging Lymphoma

Classifying Lymphoma

The doctor needs to identify the exact type (classification) of Lymphoma you have to help determine the most appropriate treatment for you. The biopsy procedure is critical in the classification process as it provides cells taken directly from the tumour. This allows doctors to determine which type of cell the tumour originated from (B-cell or T-cell), as well as other important information about the tumour cells. The biopsy is often called a “tissue diagnosis (meaning the diagnosis is made through an examination of the tissue or cells) and the course of the patients treatment depends on these results.

Once the surgeon has performed the biopsy and the pathologist has examined the tissue and tumour cells, the information is used to confirm the exact type of Lymphoma you have. The classification process is a complicated one and many organisations have attempted to simplify this. However, the most commonly used system is the World Health Organization (WHO) Lymphoma Classification System which allows different Lymphoma types to be classified in a standardised way amongst doctors around the world. Once the type, or classification, has been identified, it is then important to determine the stage and grade of the Lymphoma.

Clinical Grading of Lymphoma

The doctor must also determine the grade of the tumour, which provides information on how aggressive (fast-growing) the tumour is and helps predict how the tumour will behave. This information then helps to decide the aggressiveness of the treatment approach.

The grade is determined by the appearance of the cancer cells, what unique characteristics they have, how they function and how quickly they grow and divide.

The following table summarises the specialised process of classifying, staging and grading Lymphoma:

Classifying, Staging & Grading Lymphoma 

Description What It Describes


Lymphoma type


Extent of spread




Low-grade; slow growing


Intermediate; and high-grade, fast growing 

Staging Lymphoma

The stage of a cancer provides information on the extent to which the cancer has spread within the body. There are four stages of Lymphoma, with stages 1 and 2 being limited (involving a limited area of the body) and stages 3 and 4 being advanced (more widespread). The stage is determined by:

  • The number and location of lymph nodes affected;
  • Whether the affected lymph nodes are above, below or on both sides of the diaphragm (the large, dome-shaped muscle under the ribcage that separates the chest from the abdomen);
  • Whether the disease has spread to the bone marrow or to other organs such as the liver

The most common method for staging Lymphoma is called the Ann Arbor Staging System, which can be summarised as follows:

Ann Arbor Staging System

Stage What it Means


Is in only one group of lymph nodes


Two or more groups of lymph nodes are affected but they are all either above or below the diaphragm, either all in the chest or all in the abdomen


Two or more groups of lymph nodes are affected in both the chest and the abdomen


Lymphoma is in at least one organ (e.g. bone marrow, liver or lungs) as well as the lymph nodes

Each stage of Lymphoma may also be classified as A or B. Patients with a B classification status have one or more of the following “B symptoms":

  • Unexplained weight loss of more than 10% in the six months before diagnosis
  • Unexplained fever with temperatures above 38°C
  • Drenching night sweats

The presence of B symptoms may be associated with more advanced-stage disease.

 Video : Staging Your Lymphoma - Chapter 4 - Living With Lymphoma