Red-flag signs of cancer that affects people in their 20s and 30s

Doctor having a teenage patient on a consult at her office
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Young people are being made aware of a type of cancer called Hodgkin lymphoma, which predominantly affects adults in their 20s and 30s. Hodgkin lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system, one of the body's natural defences against infection.

It's one of the most common cancers among young people. However, treatment has a high success rate, with most teenagers and young adults with Hodgkin lymphoma being cured.

Symptoms can often be mistaken for other health conditions, like persistent tiredness or fatigue, night sweats and a persistent cough. There are two main types of lymphoma - Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

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What is Hodgkin lymphoma?

The most common symptom of Hodgkin lymphoma is the enlargement of lymph nodes in the neck, armpit, or groin. Usually, the swelling is not painful, although some individuals may experience mild discomfort, reports Wales Online.

The swelling is caused by an accumulation of white blood cells in a lymph node (also known as lymph glands). These lymph nodes, small, pea-sized masses of tissue distributed throughout the body, contain white blood cells that play a crucial role in fighting infections.

It's important to note that having swollen lymph nodes doesn't necessarily mean you have Hodgkin lymphoma. A common cold, ear infection, tonsillitis, scalp infection, or mouth ulcers can also cause a lymph node to swell.

Symptoms of Hodgkin lymphoma:

A painless lump is typically the primary symptom of Hodgkin lymphoma. However, some individuals may experience other more general symptoms, such as:

night sweats unintentional weight loss a high temperature (fever) a persistent cough or feeling of breathlessness persistent itching of the skin all over the body

The symptoms experienced will vary depending on the location of the enlarged lymph glands in the body. For instance, if the abdomen (tummy) is affected, you might experience abdominal pain or indigestion.

Some people with lymphoma may have abnormal cells in their bone marrow when they're diagnosed, which can cause:

persistent tiredness or fatigue an increased risk of infections excessive bleeding – such as nosebleeds, heavy periods and spots of blood under the skin

Occasionally, individuals with Hodgkin lymphoma may experience discomfort in their lymph nodes when drinking alcohol. It's best to visit a doctor if you're experiencing symptoms, especially if you have swollen glands that don't seem to be related to an infection.

Who's most at risk?

While the initial mutation that triggers Hodgkin lymphoma is unknown, several factors can increase your risk, according to the NHS.

  • age and gender – anyone can get Hodgkin lymphoma but it's more common in people aged 20 to 40 or over 75; it also affects slightly more men than women

  • having a medical condition that weakens your immune system, such as HIV

  • having medical treatment that weakens your immune system – for example, taking medicine to suppress your immune system after an organ transplant

  • being previously exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) – a common virus that causes glandular fever

  • having previously had non-Hodgkin lymphoma, possibly because of treatment with chemotherapy or radiotherapy

  • being very overweight (obese) – this may be more of a risk factor in women than men

  • smoking

Hodgkin lymphoma isn't infectious and isn't believed to run in families.

How is Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosed?

If you're concerned about symptoms of Hodgkin lymphoma and decide to see a GP, they will ask about your health and perform a basic physical examination. If necessary, the GP may then refer you to a hospital for further tests.

You may require a lymph node biopsy, which involves removing some or all of an affected lymph node, which is then examined in a laboratory. Additional tests may include blood tests, a bone marrow sample, a chest x-ray, a CT scan, an MRI scan or a PET scan.

The main stages of Hodgkin lymphoma are:

  • Stage 1 – the cancer is limited to 1 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 – 2 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.


There are a few options for treating Hodgkin lymphoma. One option is to undergo chemotherapy on its own, while another is to have chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy.

In some cases, chemotherapy may be paired with steroid medicine. Additionally, some individuals may also receive biological medicines as part of their treatment plan.

Surgery is not typically used as a treatment, except for when the biopsy is performed to diagnose Hodgkin lymphoma. In general, treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma is extremely effective.

The majority of individuals with this condition are ultimately cured.