Clinical Review

Diagnosis and Management of Aggressive B-Cell Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma




  • Objective: To review the diagnosis and management of aggressive B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).
  • Methods: Review of the literature.
  • Results: NHL comprises a wide variety of malignant hematologic disorders with varying clinical and biological features. Aggressive NHLs are characterized by rapid clinical progression without therapy. However, a significant proportion of patients are cured with appropriate combination chemotherapy or combined modality regimens. In contrast, the indolent lymphomas have a relatively good prognosis (median survival of 10 years or longer) but usually are not curable in advanced clinical stages. Overall 5-year survival for aggressive NHLs with current treatment is approximately 50% to 60%, with relapses typically occurring within the first 5 years.
  • Conclusion: Treatment strategies for relapsed patients offer some potential for cure; however, clinical trial participation should be encouraged whenever possible to investigate new approaches for improving outcomes in this patient population.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) comprises a wide variety of malignant hematologic disorders with varying clinical and biological features. The more than 60 separate NHL subtypes can be classified according to cell of origin (B cell versus T cell), anatomical location (eg, orbital, testicular, bone, central nervous system), clinical behavior (indolent versus aggressive), histological features, or cytogenetic abnormalities. Although various NHL classification schemes have been used over the years, the World Health Organization (WHO) classification is now widely accepted as the definitive pathologic classification system for lymphoproliferative disorders, incorporating morphologic, immunohistochemical, flow cytometric, cytogenetic, and molecular features [1]. While the pathologic and molecular subclassification of NHL has become increasingly refined in recent years, from a management standpoint, classification based on clinical behavior remains very useful. This approach separates NHL subtypes into indolent versus aggressive categories. Whereas indolent NHLs may remain clinically insignificant for months to years, aggressive B-cell NHLs generally become life-threatening within weeks to months without treatment.


Data from cancer registries show a steady, unexplainable increase in the incidence of NHL during the second half of the 20th century; the incidence has subsequently plateaued. There was a significant increase in NHL incidence between 1970 and 1995, which has been attributed in part to the HIV epidemic. More than 72,000 new cases of NHL were diagnosed in the United States in 2017, compared to just over 8000 cases of Hodgkin lymphoma, making NHL the sixth most common cancer in adult men and the fifth most common in adult women [2]. NHL appears to occur more frequently in Western countries than in Asian populations.

Various factors associated with increased risk for B-cell NHL have been identified over the years, including occupational and environmental exposure to certain pesticides and herbicides [3], immunosuppression associated with HIV infection [4], autoimmune disorders [5], iatrogenically induced immune suppression in the post-transplant and other settings [6], family history of NHL [7], and a personal history of a prior cancer, including Hodgkin lymphoma and prior NHL [8]. In terms of infectious agents associated with aggressive B-cell NHLs, Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) has a clear pathogenic role in Burkitt lymphoma, in many cases of post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorders, and in some cases of HIV-related aggressive B-cell lymphoma [9]. Human herpesvirus-8 viral genomes have been found in virtually all cases of primary effusion lymphomas [10]. Epidemiological studies also have linked hepatitis B and C to increased incidences of certain NHL subtypes [11–13], including primary hepatic diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL). Similarly, Helicobacter pylori has been associated with gastric DLBCL.

Staging and Workup

A tissue biopsy is essential in the diagnosis and management of NHL. The most significant disadvantage of fine-needle aspiration cytology is the lack of histologic architecture. The optimal specimen is an excisional biopsy; when this cannot be performed, a core needle biopsy, ideally using a 16-gauge or larger caliber needle, is the next best choice.

The baseline tests appropriate for most cases of newly diagnosed aggressive B-cell NHL are listed in Table 1.

Both hepatitis B and C have been associated with increased risk of NHL. In addition, there is a risk of hepatitis B reactivation following certain NHL therapies. A contrast-enhanced computed tomography (CT) scan in addition to positron emission tomography (PET) is useful to define the extent of disease in situations needing greater definition (eg, lymphadenopathy close to the bowel, cervical and supraclavicular nodal involvement, and lymphadenopathy causing thrombosis or compression of nearby structures) [14]. In cases where it is apparent that the patient has advanced stage disease (Ann Arbor stage III/IV) based on imaging, bone marrow biopsy is unlikely to alter the treatment plan. For such patients, if the complete blood count is unremarkable, deferral of bone marrow biopsy may be reasonable. For new cases of DLBCL, assessment for MYC translocation by fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) is recommended. If a MYC translocation is identified, then testing for BCL2 and BCL6 translocations by FISH should be performed.

Prior to the initiation of treatment, patients should always undergo a thorough cardiac and pulmonary evaluation, especially if the patient will be treated with an anthracycline or mediastinal irradiation. Central nervous system (CNS) evaluation with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and lumbar puncture is essential if there are neurological signs or symptoms. In addition, certain anatomical sites including the testicles, paranasal sinuses, kidney, adrenal glands, and epidural space have been associated with increased involvement of the CNS and may warrant MRI evaluation and lumbar puncture. Certain NHL subtypes like Burkitt lymphoma, high-grade NHL with translocations of MYC and BCL-2 or BCL-6 (double-hit lymphoma), blastoid mantle cell lymphoma, and lymphoblastic lymphoma have a high risk of CNS involvement, and patients with these subtypes need CNS evaluation.

The Lugano classification is used to stage patients with NHL [14]. This classification is based on the Ann Arbor staging system and uses the distribution and number of tumor sites to stage disease. In general, this staging system in isolation is of limited value in predicting survival after treatment. However, the Ann Arbor stage does have prognostic impact when incorporated into risk scoring systems such as the International Prognostic Index (IPI). In clinical practice, the Ann Arbor stage is useful primarily to determine eligibility for localized therapy approaches. The absence or presence of systemic symptoms such as fevers, drenching night sweats, or weight loss (> 10% of baseline over 6 months or less) is designated by A or B, respectively.


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