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Non-Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis

How is non-Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosed?

General examination and blood samples

At a general examination a doctor will look and feel for any swelling of the glands in your neck, armpits and groin. Your abdomen and chest will also be examined for any signs of enlarged organs or fluid collection. The doctor will also ask you about any other symptoms you might have. At this stage some blood samples may be taken to check how well your bone marrow, liver and kidneys are functioning. Knowing the exact type of lymphoma you have is important because it provides information on the most likely course of your disease and the best way to treat it.


If the doctor suspects that you might have lymphoma, a biopsy will need to be done to help confirm the diagnosis. A biopsy involves removing a lymph node or a sample of tissue from a suspicious lump for examination in the laboratory. There are different types of biopsies. A core or fine needle biopsy involves inserting a needle into a lymph node or lump and removing a sample of tissue. This is usually done under local anaesthetic, while you are awake. If the affected lymph node is deep inside the body the biopsy may be done with the help of ultrasound or specialised x-ray (imaging) guidance.


If the swollen gland is in the abdomen or pelvis, a surgical procedure called a laparoscopy is performed in which a narrow tube with a microscope attached is inserted through a small cut in the skin. It allows the surgeon to see the inside of your abdomen or pelvis, and to take a biopsy if needed. This is done under general anaesthetic and you will have a few stitches afterwards. Once the tissue samples are removed they are examined in the laboratory by a pathologist. It can take a few days for the final results of the biopsy to come through.

Further tests after diagnosis

Once a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma is made further tests need to be done to find out the extent to which the disease has spread in your body (the stage), and the effect it is having on important body organs. These tests include:

Blood tests

Blood tests are important because they provide a baseline set of results regarding your disease and general health. These results can be compared with later results to assess how well you are progressing.

CT scans (computerised tomography)

A CT scan of the chest, abdomen and pelvis is often used to assess the spread of lymphoma in the body.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)

An MRI scan is done when the doctor needs very clear pictures of the brain and spinal cord, to see if these areas are affected by cancer.

Gallium scan

This is an imaging technique that involves the use of radioactive gallium (a type of metal in a liquid form). The gallium is injected into a vein in your hand or arm at the nuclear medicine department of the hospital. You leave the unit and return 24-48 hours later by which time your body is scanned from several different angles, to detect the presence of lymphoma.

PET scanning (positron emission tomography)

This scan involves radioactive glucose being injected into a vein in your hand or arm. Using this technology, slow-growing lymphomas can be distinguished from fast-growing ones because of the rate at which the glucose is used by the different cells.

Bone marrow biopsy

A sample of bone marrow is taken, usually from the back of the hip bone, and sent to the laboratory for examination under the microscope. The bone marrow biopsy may be done in the haematologist’s rooms, clinic or day procedure centre and is usually performed under local anaesthesia with sedation given either by tablet or through a small drip in your arm. The sample of bone marrow is examined in the laboratory to determine the number and type of cells present and the amount of haemopoiesis (blood forming) activity taking place there.

Last updated on May 22nd, 2024

Developed by the Leukaemia Foundation in consultation with people living with a blood cancer, Leukaemia Foundation support staff, haematology nursing staff and/or Australian clinical haematologists. This content is provided for information purposes only and we urge you to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis, treatment and answers to your medical questions, including the suitability of a particular therapy, service, product or treatment in your circumstances. The Leukaemia Foundation shall not bear any liability for any person relying on the materials contained on this website.