Ask the expert: lymphoma names

Many lymphomas have very complicated names. Can you explain how lymphomas are given their names?

Scrabble board showing lymphoma names

A lot of the names are to do with what the lymphoma looks like down the microscope. Lymphoma is diagnosed by a pathologist from a biopsy and the lymph node has a very specific structure. The pathologist can identify whether the lymphoma is a B cell or T cell type using special stains.

If we take diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) as an example, the normal lymph node architecture is replaced by sheets of abnormal cell in an unstructured (or diffuse) way. The cells are larger than normal lymphocytes and special stains show they are B-cell. Hence diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.

The name follicular lymphoma was given because the normal lymph node structure consists of round structures called follicles (the name means 'little bag'). But with follicular lymphoma the follicles are very big, expanded and crowded together.

Some are named after the person who identified them. For example Hodgkin lymphoma is named after the 19th century pathologist Thomas Hodgkin who first described the cases of lymphoma that took his name. His original specimens can be found today in St Thomas' pathology museum!

Burkitt lymphoma is named after Dennis Burkitt, an Irish surgeon who did a lot of work in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s and described children who had lymphomas of the jaw and the face.

Waldenström's macroglobulinaemia is an example of the lymphoma being named after the person who recognised it as well as the biology of the disease. The Swedish doctor, Jan Waldenström, described people who had very thick blood. He realised the blood was thick because of large abnormal plasma proteins found in the blood called macroglobulins.

Published: 27 October 2021

With thanks to Dr Graham Collins who answered this, and other questions, in a recent issue of Lymphoma Matters (Spring 2021)