Burkitt lymphoma is an aggressive cancer that starts in B cells, which are part of the immune system. It can lead to death, but intensive treatment can improve the likelihood of long-term survival.

In this article, we explore the symptoms, causes, and types of Burkitt lymphoma. Next, we look at the treatment options and the outlook for someone with this form of cancer.

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Symptoms vary depending on the type of Burkitt lymphoma and the organ systems and tissues that it affects. Some general symptoms include:

As Burkitt lymphoma spreads, it may affect the:

Certain types of this cancer can cause additional symptoms. Sporadic Burkitt lymphoma, for example, can also cause:

We describe the three types of Burkitt lymphoma in more detail later in this article.

Cancer occurs when cells in the body mutate and change. If too many of these cells multiply, they can damage surrounding tissues and organs.

Burkitt lymphoma is rare, accounting for about 1–5% of non-Hodgkin lymphoma cases. It is more common in children, and the average age at diagnosis is 6 years old. This form of cancer is three to four times more likely to affect males than females.

The exact cause of Burkitt lymphoma is unclear, but the risk of developing it is greater in certain people and certain geographical regions.

As the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center notes, this cancer has ties to complications from chronic malaria and infection with the Epstein-Barr virus. A type called endemic Burkitt lymphoma is more common in areas with higher rates of Epstein-Barr virus infections and malaria, including Central Africa and Papua New Guinea.

People with immunodeficiencies, resulting from HIV, for example, can also have an increased risk of Burkitt lymphoma.

The three types of Burkitt lymphoma are:

  • endemic
  • immunodeficiency-related
  • sporadic

The types and their underlying causes vary by geographical region and their effects on the body.


Endemic Burkitt lymphoma is the most common form of the cancer. It mainly occurs in Central Africa and commonly affects children. It often enlarges the face and jaw.


Immunodeficiency-related Burkitt lymphoma mainly occurs in people with HIV. Less frequently, it affects people who have received organ transplants.


Sporadic Burkitt lymphoma occurs irregularly, without a clear explanation. It is a rarer form of this cancer, and it occurs throughout the world.

This type usually causes a tumor in the abdomen and can affect the bone marrow. From there, the cancer may spread to other organs, such as the ovaries, breasts, or kidneys.

Diagnosing Burkitt lymphoma early is important in minimizing how far the cancer spreads.

The process involves a physical examination, first, to look for signs, such as enlarged lymph nodes. Next, the doctor can order some tests. They may take a biopsy of an enlarged lymph node to look for any changes in the cells. This involves taking a sample of the enlarged node’s tissue to examine under a microscope.

Other tests include:

  • blood tests to assess the function of organs
  • HIV testing
  • X-rays or CT scans to check for damage in the body
  • gallium scans to look for signs of cancer in other areas of the body
  • a bone marrow biopsy to check for changes there
  • an examination of spinal fluid to check for nervous system involvement

Treatment can vary depending on the course of the disease. When doctors identify Burkitt lymphoma early in its progression, they use more aggressive treatments.

Chemotherapy treatment through intravenous injections is one option. The chemotherapy drugs can vary, but they may include:

  • cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan)
  • vincristine (Oncovin)
  • cytarabine (Cytosar-U)
  • methotrexate (Trexall)
  • etoposide (Vepesid)
  • doxorubicin (Adriamycin)

Because of possible effects on the central nervous system, healthcare professionals may instead deliver chemotherapy drugs directly into the spinal fluid, using what is called an intrathecal injection.

Treatment plans can involve a combination of chemotherapy drugs and other medications, such as rituximab (Rituxan). A doctor may recommend one of the following combination treatment regimens:

For people with HIV, doctors may recommend less toxic versions of chemotherapy drugs.

To enhance the effects or manage side effects of chemotherapy, doctors may also recommend:

In general, immunotherapy may help improve a person’s outlook. And a doctor may recommend surgery to remove areas that have been damaged by the cancer, such as parts of the intestines that might otherwise cause blockages.

For people who cannot endure intense chemotherapy, the treatment plan may focus on easing symptoms.

Without prompt treatment, Burkitt lymphoma can rapidly progress and lead to death. Intensive chemotherapy leads to the highest rates of long-term survival in children.

In some countries, the cure rate for children and young adults with Burkitt lymphoma is approaching 90%. When doctors detect and treat the cancer early on, the overall survival rate for children may be as high as 98%.

Survival rates in adults are more variable, and the long-term outlook is worse. Data reported in 2013 and adjusted for the population of the United States indicate the following 5-year survival rates for people who received a Burkitt lymphoma diagnosis between 2002 and 2008:

  • ages 20–39: 60%
  • ages 40–59: 48%
  • ages 60 and above: 33%

This research analyzed a total of 3,691 cases of Burkitt lymphoma from a range of locations in the U.S.

Five-year survival rates reflect the likelihood of living for at least another 5 years after the diagnosis.

It is worth keeping in mind that all survival rates are based on averages of past data, and they may not take into account recent advances in detection and treatment. Treatments for this type of cancer are continually progressing, which is causing the outlook to improve.

Burkitt lymphoma is a rare, fast-growing form of cancer. Successful treatment methods are aggressive, usually involving a combination of chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and other therapies.

Children and young adults have the highest likelihood of long-term survival, particularly if they receive the diagnosis and treatment early in the progression of the disease.

Survival rates for other adults are more variable, but it is worth noting that treatments for this form of cancer are continually advancing.