In some non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) subtypes, complete remission is possible; doctors may refer to reaching complete remission as ‘curing’ the cancer.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) notes that the term “cure” means there are no traces of cancer after a person has undergone treatment. It also means that the cancer will never return.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma describes several subtypes of lymphoma that share similar characteristics.

Before healthcare professionals consider a person cured of cancer, they must go into complete remission. Complete remission means that all signs of cancer have disappeared.

A doctor may say that a person is cured of NHL if they remain in complete remission for 5 years.

This article answers whether or not NHL is curable. It also provides statistics regarding a person’s outlook and life expectancy, their chance of relapse, and more.

A collage depicting a person with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.Share on Pinterest
Design by MNT: Photography by Studio Firma/Stocksy & Ed Uthman from Houston, TX, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

NHL refers to a collection of different blood cancers that have similar characteristics.

Some types of NHL can reach complete remission, and other types cannot.

In those cases, a doctor may aim for the cancer to go into partial remission. This means that the treatment is having an effect on the cancer and potentially slowing its progression.

NHL breaks down into two main types — indolent and aggressive NHL.

According to MacMillan Cancer Support, a charity in the United Kingdom, aggressive lymphomas do not typically return after successful treatment. However, indolent lymphomas often return after years of remission.

A person should speak with a doctor about their specific NHL subtype for more information on the treatment and outlook.

Indolent lymphomas

Indolent lymphomas grow slowly and account for about 4 in 10 of all NHL cases.

The treatment for stage 1 or 2 indolent NHL involves radiation therapy. The NCI notes that radiation therapy alone is enough to effectively treat indolent lymphomas.

However, in the more advanced stages, indolent NHL is not typically curable. Instead, the treatment aims to control the symptoms and achieve remission.

After years of remission, the lymphoma usually comes back. However, another round of treatment can shrink the lymphoma down again, resulting in another period of remission.

This means that doctors can control the lymphoma for a long time, and people will maintain a good quality of life between the rounds of treatment.

Subtypes of indolent NHL include:

Aggressive lymphomas

These types of NHL progress quickly and account for about 6 in 10 of all NHL cases.

As these are fast-growing, a person will require treatment as soon as possible. Treatment often involves chemotherapy and steroids or a combination of steroids, immunotherapy, and chemotherapy.

Doctors can cure aggressive NHL in over half of cases, and the cancer is unlikely to come back.

Subtypes of aggressive NHL include:

A relative survival rate helps give an idea of how long a person with a particular condition will live after receiving a diagnosis compared with those without the condition.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the overall 5-year relative survival rate for those with NHL is 73%. This means that a person with NHL is 73% as likely to live for 5 years as someone without the condition.

The NCI’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) provides the 5-year relative survival rates for NHL according to stage:

Stage5-year relative survival rate
stage 186.5%
stage 278.1%
stage 372.3%
stage 463.9%

It is important to remember that these figures are estimates. A person can consult a healthcare professional about how their condition is going to affect them.

Several factors can affect a person’s outlook and survival. These include:

  • overall health
  • age at onset
  • the stage of cancer
  • how well the cancer responds to treatment
  • the available treatment options

Indolent NHL

The ACS provides the 5-year relative survival rates for follicular lymphoma, which is the most common subtype of indolent NHL:

Stage5-year relative survival rate
local — the tumor is small and has not spread97%
regional — the cancer has not spread beyond the lymph nodes or local tissues91%
distant — the cancer has spread to the distant organs and tissues of the body86%
all stages combined90%

Aggressive NHL

The ACS also provides the 5-year relative survival rates for diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, which is the most common subtype of aggressive NHL:

Stage5-year relative survival rate
local 74%
all stages combined64%

According to the SEER, the median age of death for all types of NHL is 76 years old. The median age of diagnosis is 67.

The NCI states that those with indolent forms of NHL have a median survival of about 20 years.

Those in the late stages of indolent NHL are more likely to experience continuous rates of relapse.

However, those who experience relapse can undergo another course of treatment, which can successfully result in another remission.

Doctors are able to cure over half of aggressive NHL cases. If relapse or recurrence does develop, this normally happens within the first 2 years after treatment.

Next steps

If recurrence or relapse occurs, a person should plan to speak with their doctor about the next steps.

When speaking with a doctor, it is important to remember they may not suggest the same treatment options as before.

Several factors can influence changes in treatment, including the person’s age, overall health, and type of cancer.

A person should contact a doctor during treatment if they:

  • have any new questions that come up
  • notice changes in their symptoms
  • experience side effects that are difficult to live with

A person should not hesitate to call a doctor or cancer team with questions about their treatment, symptoms, or anything related to their care.

A person may find that writing out the questions they want answers to can help ensure they do not miss anything.

If they plan to go with a family member or friend, it may be helpful to provide them with a list of questions so they can ask or record the answers.

Some questions that a person may want to ask include:

  • What is the overall outlook for my individual case?
  • What other tests may I need?
  • Which treatment options make the most sense?
  • When should treatment start?
  • Is financial aid available through the medical practice?

While friends and family can provide valuable support, a person may want or need additional help.

There are several nonprofit organizations that offer resources and support groups to help both the person and their loved ones.

Cancer treatment teams may be able to offer information on local support groups.

The following are some national support groups that may help a person who has NHL:

Besides the cost of treatment, a person may also need to pay for child care, transportation, food, missed work, and other expenses.

While health insurance can cover some or all of the treatment costs, a person may still need to pay for copays or deductibles.

People can speak with case workers at the hospital or their care team to find out if there are any options for lowering the costs of care. They may be able to provide information on local resources that can help.

Some organizations that may help with financial support include:

NHL has two main types — aggressive and indolent. Each has a different outlook and 5-year relative survival rate.

Early stage indolent NHL may be curable after radiation therapy. The more advanced stages are not usually curable.

However, although the cancer is likely to return after years of remission, treatment can help to shrink the lymphoma down again. As a result, doctors are able to control the cancer for a long time.

Over half of aggressive NHL cases are curable, and the cancer is unlikely to return.

Several organizations can help with providing emotional as well as financial support to people undergoing cancer treatment and their families. A person can ask the treatment team about resources or check out national resources available online.