Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the cancer that claimed the life of 39-year-old actor Andy Whitfield, is the most common cancer affecting the lymphatic system — the network of organs, ducts and nodes that dispenses immune cells that help the body fight off infection.
The Welsh-born Whitfield, star of the cable show “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” was diagnosed with NHL in 2010, and his condition worsened last January, according to the Associated Press.
According to the National Cancer Institute, there have been 66,360 new cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosed this year, and 19,320 deaths. The Lymphoma Research Foundation estimates that 332,000 Americans are currently living with this type of cancer that kills quickly – only 63 percent live five years after diagnosis, according to the Lymphoma Research Foundation. Since the early 1970s, the number of new cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma has nearly doubled – a 2004 study suggests the increase could be attributed to better cancer reporting, an increase in AIDS-related NHL and changes in the classification of lymphoma.
While non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma can strike at any age, lymphomas as a whole are the most common childhood cancers, whose symptoms include chills, fever, weight loss and enlarged lymph nodes.
The exact cause of NHL remains a mystery, but a family history of the disease, already having an autoimmune disease and exposure to certain environmental chemicals are believed to contribute to it.
Right now, NHL patients have three treatment options: chemotherapy, radiation, therapy that targets specific cancer cells while leaving normal cells unharmed, but new treatments are in the pipeline. One new therapy consists of giving patients a high dose of chemotherapy, along with stem cells that can potentially replace the cells destroyed by the cancer treatment. Another experimental therapy uses the body’s immune system to fight the cancer.