What Is Burkitt Lymphoma?

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Burkitt lymphoma, typically found in children, is a rare, but aggressive type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that starts in special white blood cells called lymphocytes (which help defend the body against disease). It was first discovered in African children and is closely associated with that region.

The cancer is also linked to other diseases, including Epstein Barr virus (EBV), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and certain chromosomal abnormalities. Though it’s considered an aggressive form of cancer, Burkitt lymphoma is usually treatable.

Burkitt lymphoma

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Types of Burkitt Lymphoma

The three main types of Burkitt lymphoma include:

  • Endemic Burkitt lymphoma: The endemic form originates in Africa and is the most common type. Endemic Burkitt lymphoma is rare in areas outside of Africa. Almost all cases of endemic Burkitt lymphoma are closely linked to Epstein Barr virus (EBV), the virus that causes infectious mononucleosis, also known as “mono.” It is most commonly found in the jaw.
  • Sporadic Burkitt lymphoma: This type is found all over the world. An abdominal tumor is the hallmark sign of sporadic Burkitt lymphoma.
  • Immunodeficiency-related Burkitt lymphoma: This type often develops in people with HIV/AIDS, or in those who have inherited immune deficiency disorders. It can also occur in individuals who take immunosuppressive drugs after an organ transplant.

Burkitt Lymphoma and EBV

While endemic Burkitt lymphoma is associated with EBV, the type found in North America is not. EBV is one of the most common viruses in the world and typically spreads through saliva.

Symptoms

Burkitt lymphoma is the fastest growing tumor in the human body, so symptoms may surface quickly. 

The first sign is swelling of the lymph nodes in the head and neck, which happens rapidly but is typically painless. Swelling and distortion of facial bones is also a symptom of Burkitt lymphoma, specifically in the jaw in its endemic form.

Sporadic Burkitt lymphoma, which is more common in the United States, usually starts in the abdomen, but Burkitt lymphoma can also originate in the nervous system, bowel, kidneys, or reproductive organs.

Some general symptoms of Burkitt lymphoma include:

  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath

Tumor Lysis Syndrome

Some people with Burkitt lymphoma may develop a serious condition called tumor lysis syndrome, which occurs when tumor cells release their contents into the bloodstream. Symptoms of tumor lysis syndrome include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Cloudy urine
  • Drowsiness
  • Joint pain or discomfort

Causes

Researchers don’t know exactly what causes Burkitt lymphoma. However, what is known is that it more commonly affects children, being the most common type of childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Sporadic Burkitt lymphoma accounts for 30% of childhood lymphomas in the United States, and endemic Burkitt lymphoma accounts for 30% to 50% of all childhood cancers in Africa.

An EBV infection is closely associated with most cases of endemic Burkitt lymphoma.

Other risk factors include having a disease that compromises the immune system (such as HIV) or living in a region where malaria is common (such as Africa).

Diagnosis

Physicians will likely perform a biopsy to diagnose Burkitt lymphoma, typically of the bone marrow or lymph nodes. This procedure involves removing a small piece of tissue from the body to analyze in a lab. A pathologist can determine if the sample is cancerous, and if so, what type of cancer it is.

During the diagnostic process, other tests may include: 

Treatment

Burkitt lymphoma is very treatable. However, because it grows so fast, treatment should be started right away. If untreated, this type of cancer can quickly become severe.

Intensive chemotherapy is usually given to treat Burkitt lymphoma. Oncologists may recommend a combination of chemotherapy drugs, including rituximab, a monoclonal antibody therapy that has been shown to improve outcomes and reduce side effects.

If there is no response to chemotherapy treatment, an oncologist may recommend a bone marrow transplant.

Prognosis

The outlook for Burkitt lymphoma is generally positive if treated promptly. More than half of patients with Burkitt lymphoma can be cured with intensive chemotherapy.

Treatment in children with Burkitt lymphoma is particularly favorable. Those with early-stage disease have a long-term survival rate of more than 90%. The survival rate for kids and teens with more advanced Burkitt lymphoma is still positive, at 80% to 90%.

The disease is sometimes more difficult to treat in older adults who can’t tolerate intensive chemotherapy treatments, so outcomes for elderly patients are lower.

The prognosis for patients who experience relapse is usually poor.

Coping

Dealing with a cancer diagnosis can be difficult. Patients with Burkitt lymphoma can help take care of themselves by eating a healthy diet, exercising, and getting enough rest. Caregivers of children with cancer should do the same.

Patients who experience stress as a result of a cancer diagnosis should consider methods to help reduce stress, like meditation, yoga, massage, or writing about their experience.

Find Support

Online and in-person support groups can help connect people living with Burkitt lymphoma. Organizations such as the Lymphoma Research Foundation and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society offer services and resources for connecting with others who have a blood disorder.

A Word From Verywell

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Burkett lymphoma, you should know treatment is usually successful and patients often achieve complete remission with intensive chemotherapy. Discuss which therapies are best for your particular situation with your oncologist or healthcare provider.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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