Burkitt lymphoma is a cancer that develops in the lymph or lymphatic tissue, which are part of the immune system. Their role is to protect the human body from infection and other harmful substances in the environment. Lymphatic tissue is composed of lymphoid cells and if the immune system is compromised, fatal complications can arise. Cells in the lymphatic system form solid organs, such as lymph nodes, but are also scattered in other bodily organs and tissues including all parts of the digestive and respiratory system.
Tumors form when certain cells or a group of cells in the human body are out of control and begin to divide and grow uncontrollably. New, unplanned units form and can be called neoplasms. Lymphomas, like other tumors, are divided into groups: benign and malignant.
- Benign tumors are not life threatening. They grow in a pouch and do not endanger surrounding organs. Most importantly, they do not form secondary tumor deposits, i.e. metastasize.
- Malignant tumors on the other hand, such as in the case of Burkitt lymphoma, grow aggressively and invade surrounding tissues. They can metastasize, which is the most common cause of death in cancer patients.
Development of Burkitt Lymphoma
If the lymph cells get out of control and begin to divide indefinitely, we are dealing with cancer of the lymphatic tissue, or lymphoma. Tumors of lymphoid cells can appear in any organ where these cells are found. Burkitt lymphoma is usually located in the lower jaw or in other facial bones. Less often is it found in the intestines, ovaries, mammary glands, or kidneys. It develops almost exclusively in children and young adults from all over the world, however most frequently in equatorial Africa.
Types of Burkitt Lymphoma
The African type appears almost exclusively in Africa. The jaw is affected a lot more often than in the following two types, and it has proven to be linked with the Epstein-Barr virus. The Epstein-Barr virus, EBV for short, is part of the group of herpetic viruses that are causes of diseases such as cold sores and chickenpox. Other than Burkitt lymphoma, EBV is responsible for infectious mononucleosis as well.
The European type is sporadic, and unlike the African type, it can be found all over the world. It affects both children and adults and the most commonly affected organ in this case are the intestines.
Burkitt lymphoma is linked to immunodeficiency and is usually found in patients with a lowered immune response, mainly patients suffering from HIV as well as transplant patients who take medication to suppress their immune system. These products ensure that the immune system does not reject the transplanted organ as a foreign object. It is usually the first sign of AIDS.
Manifestations of Burkitt Lymphoma
Burkitt lymphoma is a cancer affecting mostly adolescents. It affects the lymph nodes at the back of the abdominal cavity, the abdominal wall and possibly the intestines as well. It is manifested by stomach pain, expanding belly, bleeding into the intestines, impaired intestinal function, and kidney failure. The patient also suffers from high fevers, nausea and vomiting.
Diagnosing Burkitt Lymphoma
Diagnosing Burkitt lymphoma is complicated as it is not the first thing that a doctor looks for when presenting symptoms, as they can be common symptoms appearing in a number of other illnesses. This means that a diagnosis for Burkitt lymphoma cannot be made solely on the basis of clinical symptoms. An important part of diagnosis is a biopsy; a tissue sample taken with a thin needle inside an enlarged lymph node on the surface of the body. In the case of enlarged lymph nodes in the abdominal cavity, a tissue sample must be taken surgically. To identify the extent of the disease, a CT scan of the chest and abdominal cavity, lung x-rays and an ultrasound of the stomach are necessary. PET is an important and valuable method for Burkitt lymphoma. It is a positron emission tomography that highlights the areas of the body with increased metabolic activity, as it occurs in cancer.
Treating Burkitt Lymphoma
It is not possible to recognize the individual types of Burkitt lymphoma with the naked eye or with a microscope. All three look very similar and consist of the same tumor cells; therefore treatment for all three types is similar. Chemotherapy, administration of aggressive chemical agents that kill all rapidly dividing cells, is used to treat Burkitt lymphoma. The biggest disadvantage of these chemicals is that other than tumor cells, they also kill reproductive and mucous cells. Skin and hair damage follows as well as malfunction of the immune system. These patients experience hair loss and have problems conceiving children. They often suffer from bacterial, viral and yeast infections. Moreover, the effectiveness of the treatment depends on the stage in which the tumor is detected. In addition, if the response is too fast, dead cells are released into the bloodstream and can cause a wide variety of complications. Other treatment methods include tumor radiation, treatment with agents that boost the immune system, bone marrow transplant and lastly, surgical removal of the tumor area.
Prognosis of Burkitt Lymphoma
The average five-year survival after the detection of the tumor is about fifty percent; therefore about half of patients die within five years as a result of tumor growth. Even though Burkitt lymphoma is among one of the most aggressive and dangerous cancers, it is quite rare.