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Benign Lymphoma: Your Guide

Posted on July 21, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Mark Levin, M.D.
Article written by
Maureen McNulty

Causes | Signs and Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatments | Benign Lymphoma and Cancer | Get Support

Benign lymphoma is a tumor that develops from lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell that fights infection). Benign lymphoma, also called pseudolymphoma or benign lymphoid hyperplasia, is a rare noncancerous (benign) tumor made up of lymphocytes. Unlike other types of lymphoma, benign lymphoma is not cancer. Benign lymphoma may also be called follicular lymphoid hyperplasia or reactive lymphoid hyperplasia.

Benign means that a condition is not cancerous. Benign lymphoma occurs when many lymphocytes collect in one area, usually outside of the lymphatic system (the system that fights infection and removes waste from the body). Benign lymphoma cells often look like lymphoma when doctors view them under a microscope, but they don’t act the same way or cause as much harm.

Benign lymphoma can occur in many parts of the body, including the:

  • Skin
  • Mouth, tongue, or throat
  • Lungs
  • Gastrointestinal (digestive) system
  • Breasts

Causes of Benign Lymphoma

Experts don’t know what causes benign lymphoma. Some think that benign lymphoma is caused by irritation or inflammation. In some cases, researchers have found that certain risk factors may make benign lymphoma more likely. Benign lymphoma in the skin may be caused by insect bites, acupuncture treatments, body piercings, tattoos, and bacterial infections. In the lungs, benign lymphoma can be caused by autoimmune diseases, HIV infection, or common variable immune deficiency.

In most cases, however, doctors can’t find any specific factor that may have caused the disease.

Signs and Symptoms of Benign Lymphoma

Benign lymphoma in different parts of the body leads to different signs and symptoms, such as the following:

  • Skin — Lumps or patches that appear skin-colored, red, purple, or brown
  • Eye — Swelling around the eyes, drooping eyelids, double vision, or other vision problems
  • Tongue — A slow-growing lump that may eventually grow large enough to block the airway
  • Lungs — Cough, shortness of breath, frequent infections, chest pain, fever, weight loss, or fatigue

In some cases, benign lymphoma doesn’t cause any symptoms. Doctors sometimes find it during tests for other conditions.

Benign Lymphoma Diagnosis

Several tests can help diagnose lymphoma. Imaging tests are normally used to examine the affected tissue. In these tests, benign lymphomas may look very similar to cancerous tumors. In order to tell the difference, doctors will often take a biopsy (collect a small sample of tissue).

Doctors send the biopsy sample to a lab for immunohistochemistry tests. These tests allow doctors to determine which types of cells are present in the tissue. Cancerous lymphoma tumors contain many white blood cells that are all the same size and type of cell. However, areas of benign lymphoma are filled with many different types of white blood cells.

Doctors may also examine lymph nodes that are located nearby the affected tissue. If a person has lymphoma, cancer cells will usually spread to and collect in nearby lymph nodes. This cell behavior is less common in people with benign lymphoma.

In some cases, doctors don’t know whether the lymphoma is cancerous or benign until they watch it grow over time. A very slow-growing tumor that isn’t spreading into nearby tissues is most likely benign.

Treatments for Benign Lymphoma

Benign lymphoma is rare and has not been well-studied, making it hard to determine which treatment options work best.

Some cases of benign lymphoma don’t need treatment if they aren’t causing many symptoms. This approach, called watchful waiting, involves regular follow-up doctor’s visits to make sure the lymphoma isn’t getting worse. Occasionally, benign lymphoma goes away on its own without being treated.

The most common treatments for this condition are high doses of steroids, radiation therapy, and surgery to remove the lymphoma tissue. If doctors think they know what caused the benign lymphoma, treating the underlying condition or factor may also help. Treatments may vary depending on where benign lymphoma occurs:

  • Skin — Steroids
  • Eye — Medications such as interferon alpha-2b (Intron A), cyclosporine (Gengraf), and doxycycline (Vibramycin)
  • Tongue — Surgery to cut out the lump
  • Lungs — Steroids, immunosuppressants (drugs that reduce the strength of the immune system), or surgery to remove the lymphoma

Doctors are studying whether other types of treatments may also help benign lymphoma. In one case report involving two people with benign lymphoma in the eye, doctors administered rituximab (Rituxan). Rituximab is a drug called a monoclonal antibody. It attaches to and kills B cells, a type of lymphocyte. Many of the cells found in benign lymphomas are B cells, so rituximab may help reduce or eliminate symptoms.

In rare cases, benign lymphomas may grow back after being treated.

Does Benign Lymphoma Lead to Cancer?

Benign lymphoma can sometimes turn into cancer, although it is not common. The likelihood of a benign lymphoma becoming cancerous depends on where it is located.

In the few studies covering benign lymphoma of the tongue or mouth, no participants developed cancer. Less than 1 percent of benign lymphomas affecting the eye turn into cancer. Benign lymphoma of the skin sometimes transforms into cancerous B-cell lymphomas, such as cutaneous B-cell lymphoma or diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. Rarely, people with benign lymphoma near the eye have been diagnosed with cancerous lymphoma. Some doctors think that radiation therapy may help prevent benign lymphoma from becoming cancerous, but no clinical trials have yet studied whether this hypothesis is true.

Doctors often recommend follow-up visits for several years after a person is diagnosed with benign lymphoma. Regular observation allows doctors to keep an eye on whether the benign lymphoma is becoming worse or transforming into cancer.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyLymphomaTeam is the social network for people with lymphoma and their loved ones. More than 12,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lymphoma.

Are you living with benign lymphoma? Share your experiences in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyLymphomaTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Mark Levin, M.D. is a hematology and oncology specialist with over 37 years of experience in internal medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Maureen McNulty studied molecular genetics and English at Ohio State University. Learn more about her here.

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