Mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) is a rare cancer affecting the lymphatic system. It shares characteristics with other types of lymphomas, but understanding the signs and symptoms of MCL can help a person receive early treatment.

MCL is a rare and often aggressive type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas are cancers affecting the lymphatic system, the body’s network of lymph nodes, vessels, and lymphatic fluid.

In MCL, cancerous changes begin in the mantle cell layer of lymphoid follicles. These structures within lymph nodes play an important role in initiating immune responses. Mantle cells are a type of specialized B lymphocyte, meaning MCL is a B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Cancers affecting B cells often present with classic symptoms known as B symptoms, but MCL can be without symptoms in its early stages.

This article explores the signs and symptoms of mantle cell lymphoma and when a person should visit a doctor.

People may not have any symptoms in the early stages of MCL.

It takes time for cancerous cells to multiply enough to affect function or cause discomfort. Even if lymph nodes become swollen from MCL, they might not generate pain depending on their locations.

Lymph node swelling can be one of the first symptoms noticed and may occur in any lymph node of the body. For many people, painless but persistent lymph node swelling — particularly in the neck and throat region — is why they initiate a doctor visit.

B symptoms

“B symptoms” refers to a set of symptoms regularly associated with dysfunction of B lymphocytes, as seen in B-cell lymphomas such as MCL.

B lymphocytes, or B cells, are a type of white blood cell responsible for several immune-related functions. They help produce and circulate antibodies and play a key role in the body’s ability to recognize previously encountered pathogens such as bacteria and viruses.

When cancer affects B cells, it sometimes causes telltale B symptoms such as:

  • fever
  • drenching night sweats
  • unexplained weight loss, typically 10% or more of body weight over a period of 6 months

In certain forms of lymphoma, the presence of B symptoms is an important diagnostic factor. However, MCL does not always present with B symptoms. They can support a diagnosis when reported, but their absence does not rule out MCL.

About 33% of people living with MCL are estimated to have B symptoms by the time they visit a doctor.

Nonspecific symptoms

Nonspecific symptoms are experiences that occur across a spectrum of medical conditions. They are not unique to any single disease process or disorder, but their presence suggests the body is experiencing an illness.

Nonspecific symptoms in people with MCL include:

  • appetite loss
  • nausea and vomiting
  • indigestion
  • distended abdomen
  • abdominal pain
  • bloating
  • sensation of “fullness”
  • easy bruising
  • fatigue
  • lack of energy
  • headaches
  • increase in infections

Clinical signs

Clinical signs are indications of MCL detectable through medical examination, diagnostic imaging, laboratory screenings, and other specialized testing.

Clinical signs of MCL can include:

  • swollen lymph nodes
  • enlargement of the spleen or liver
  • unusual blood work results and organ function tests
  • detection of cancerous cells under microscopic analysis
  • absence of Reed-Sternberg cells, cells characteristic of Hodgkin’s lymphomas
  • detection of CD5, CD19, CD20, or CD22 antigens with immunohistochemistry testing
  • positive identification of MCL-related translocations on the cyclin D1 (CCND1) gene

Approximately 10–15% of people diagnosed with MCL are considered low risk or at an early stage without rapid disease progression.

Treatment typically involves radiation or mild chemotherapy in the early stages of MCL, such as stage 1 or 2.

During this time, lifestyle improvements and proactive health initiatives, such as regular exercise, are crucial to help keep a person’s body strong for when cancer advances and more rigorous treatment begins.

Most people are diagnosed with MCL when cancer is widespread. In the later stages of MCL — stage 3 or 4 — symptoms may cause significant pain and functional challenges in daily life.

Treatment often involves:

  • chemotherapy
  • immunotherapy
  • pain management
  • stem cell transplant

In addition to prescription medications and medical therapies, some people may find symptom relief through complementary approaches, such as:

  • acupuncture
  • massage
  • meditation
  • mind-body arts, such as Tai Chi
  • nutritional support
  • stress reduction techniques
  • hypnosis

MCL can be asymptomatic, making early detection a challenge. However, as a cancer originating in the lymph nodes, persistent swelling in these locations or the appearance of B symptoms warrant a visit to the doctor.

How to know when swollen lymph nodes are serious

“Lymphadenopathy,” the medical term for a swollen lymph node, can develop from many minor conditions and indicates the body’s immune system is activated.

Swelling is the natural result of increased immune activity, and lymph nodes typically return to their natural size once the immune response ends and lymphatic fluid drains.

Swollen lymph nodes that remain enlarged for more than 2 weeks or occur alongside symptoms such as pain, fever, chills, or night sweats may indicate a serious underlying condition.

Mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) is a rare type of B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It originates in the mantle cell layer of lymphoid follicles found within lymph nodes.

Signs and symptoms of MCL, such as swollen lymph nodes and B symptoms, can resemble those of other lymphomas.

Clinical signs, including the presence of certain genetic markers and specific antigens, can help differentiate MCL from other cancers of the lymphatic system.