The primary way to diagnose lymphoma involves a lymph node biopsy. However, doctors may utilize several other diagnostic procedures depending on a person’s lymphoma.

Doctors can use blood tests, biopsies, and imaging scans to determine the type of lymphoma a person has and how advanced the condition is. Appropriate diagnosis is also critical to treatment planning.

In this article, we look at the different types of tests and procedures used to diagnose lymphoma, the different stages, and the outlook.

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Initially, a doctor will investigate a person’s symptoms and medical history to rule out other medical conditions.

The doctor will also look for signs of infection near the lymph nodes, as it is a common cause of enlarged lymph nodes.

Learn more about what to expect in a physical exam.

A lymph node biopsy can detect the presence of lymphoma and help a doctor determine what type of lymphoma a patient has. A biopsy is the only way to confirm if an individual has lymphoma.

Surgeons may either perofrm an excisional lymph node biopsy, which removes the whole lymph node, or an incisional biopsy, which removes a partial sample. The doctor will then send it to a laboratory for examination.

Learn more about the biopsy procedure here.

  • A complete blood count (CBC) may show low blood cells, meaning the lymphoma is growing in the bone marrow and affecting new cell formation.
  • Blood chemistry tests examine how well the kidney and liver function works.
  • An increase in lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) levels is often found in patients with lymphoma.

A doctor may request imaging scans to look for possible causes of the person’s symptoms, determine the extent of the lymphoma, and to monitor the effectiveness of the treatment for the disease.

These imaging tests include:

CT scan

Doctors will use a CT scan to look for lymphoma in the abdomen, chest, head, pelvis, and neck. A doctor will use this to identify if any lymph nodes or organs in a person’s body are enlarged.

PET scan

Some machines can do a PET scan and CT scan at the same time. This can help a medical professional gain a more detailed image of parts of the body and can pinpoint areas of lymphoma better than a CT scan alone.

Combination scans can also help detect the metabolic activity of a tumor in its location, further helping with staging of a tumor.

Chest X-ray

Doctors may use a chest X-ray to diagnose enlarged lymph nodes and other localized complications, such as fluid around the lung.


MRI scans show detailed images of soft tissues in a person’s body. This test is used if a doctor is concerned about the disease spreading to the spinal cord or brain.

Certain chemotherapy drugs can affect the heart and lungs, so doctors may use other tests to assess function.

An echocardiogram is an ultrasound of the heart that checks heart function. Pulmonary function tests work by checking a person’s lung function when they breathe into a tube connected to a machine.

Generally, PET scans or CT scans are the most important ways to determine the stage of lymphoma.

The main stages of lymphoma are as follows:

  • Stage 1: The lymphoma is in only one lymph node area such as the tonsils.
  • Stage 2: The lymphoma is present in two lymph node groups on the same side of diaphgram.
  • Stage 3: The lymphoma is present in several lymph nodes, on both sides of the diaphragm, and may have spread to the spleen.
  • Stage 4: The lymphoma spreads far into at least one organ outside the lymph system, such as the bone marrow, liver, or lung.

Learn more about cancer staging here.

If a person has lymphoma symptoms, they should seek help from a doctor as soon as possible. Lymphoma is considered treatable. However, it is a serious condition that requires medical attention.

A person should contact a doctor if they begin to experiences symptoms of lymphoma, including:

With treatment, more than 73.8% of individuals with a non-Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis will survive for at least 5 years.

With Hodgkin lymphoma, 89.1% of people who receive treatment will survive for at least 5 years.

The survival rate decreases as lymphoma spreads or progresses to more advanced stages. It is important to seek medical attention for any symptoms of a cold or infection that continue for an extended period, as early diagnosis can improve a person’s chances of successful treatment.

Generally, a lymph node biopsy is the best way to diagnose lymphoma. During this test, a doctor removes a sample of an individual’s lymph node and examines the tissue for cancer cells. A person may also need blood tests and imaging tests.

Though diagnosing lymphoma takes a long time, it is an important process. Proper diagnosis will allow a medical professional to decide the best treatment plan for the patient’s needs.