How Burkitt Lymphoma Is Treated

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Burkitt lymphoma is an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It affects white blood cells called lymphocytes and other parts of the body apart from the lymphatic system. It commonly is seen in children.

Although this type of cancer is aggressive, treatment options exist, and in many cases, it’s curable. When caught early in children, the prognosis is usually good. Because it advances so rapidly, doctors typically use intensive therapies to treat Burkitt lymphoma.

Child receiving chemotherapy

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Surgeries and Specialist-Driven Procedures 

Doctors typically use intensive chemotherapy to treat Burkitt lymphoma. 

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy drugs are usually administered intravenously. However, some drugs are taken orally. With regional chemotherapy, drugs are delivered directly into the body at the site where the cancer cells are located. 

In children, chemotherapy for Burkitt lymphoma often has a good outcome. However, the situation is different in older adults. Older people with Burkitt lymphoma often have a poor prognosis.

Chemotherapy is usually the first-line treatment in children with Burkitt lymphoma. The treatment period can last up to six months. But in children, the typical treatment length is about nine weeks. In later-stage Burkitt lymphoma, doctors use more intensive chemotherapy and may inject it into the spinal fluid.

Staging and Treatment

Staging determines how far cancer has spread. This is used to guide treatment decisions.

In children, doctors use the International Pediatric Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Staging System (IPNHLSS), based on where the lymphoma is located, such as in lymph nodes, outside of lymph nodes, or in multiple areas. Stages 1 and 2 are considered limited-stage and treated similarly. Stages 3 and 4 are advanced-stage and treated similarly.

In adults, the Lugano classification staging system is used. It is also based on the locations affected by the lymphoma and has stages 1 through 6.


Doctors often combine chemotherapy with a monoclonal antibody drug called Rituxan (rituximab). It targets B cell lymphocytes (the cells that are cancerous in Burkitt lymphoma) and leads to their destruction.

Studies show that giving Rituxan to patients before chemotherapy significantly improves chemotherapy success rates and five-year survival rates. The combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy is called chemoimmunotherapy.

However, while intensive therapy is relatively well-tolerated by children with Burkitt lymphoma, it’s highly toxic when used to treat adults. Research from 2020 suggests that an alternative to intensive chemotherapy called dose-adjusted (DA) EPOCH-R is very effective for adults with Burkitt lymphoma. It’s also better tolerated.

Treatment in Developing Countries

The most common type of Burkitt lymphoma is seen in Africa. It should be noted that the cure rate for this type of cancer is much lower in developing countries.

Depending on the treatment prescribed by your doctor, you will either receive treatment at the hospital or at home via a special pump. In most cases, a central line is inserted to prevent repeated needle jabs.

Clinical trials with different chemotherapy drugs and other therapies are ongoing, especially for nonresponsive and relapsed cases.

Chemotherapy Side Effects

Because chemotherapy affects both healthy and cancerous cells, it can cause a host of side effects, including:

  • Hair loss
  • Infection
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Anemia (lack of healthy red blood cells)
  • Easy bruising 
  • Appetite changes
  • Mouth sores and trouble swallowing
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weight changes
  • Mood changes
  • Fertility issues
  • Urine, bladder, and kidney issues
  • Skin changes and nail changes
  • Neuropathy
  • Difficulty with concentration
  • Change in libido

Surgery

When Burkitt lymphoma is still in the early stages, doctors may recommend surgery in addition to chemotherapy and treatment with rituximab if the tumor is localized.

Bone Marrow Transplant

In some cases, when a person doesn’t respond to chemotherapy, doctors may suggest a bone marrow (stem cell) transplant. Doctors may also recommend this treatment option for people whose Burkitt lymphoma comes back.

In a bone marrow transplant, stem cells are harvested from either the bone marrow, peripheral blood, or a newborn's umbilical blood. They may come from a donor that is matched to the recipient (allogeneic transplant) or from the recipient (autologous transplant).

The recipient is treated to eliminate cancerous cells and the stem cells are then infused into the bloodstream, where they migrate to the bone marrow.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) and Alternative Therapies

You can’t treat cancer with OTC treatments or home remedies. Deciding whether to use supplements or try alternative therapies is your personal choice. In some cases, your cancer care team might recommend some natural or OTC treatments for the side effects of chemotherapy.

Keep in mind that some supplements and herbal remedies can interact with the medications you are taking. Talk with your doctor before adding these to your diet.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) shouldn’t be used instead of traditional cancer treatments. However, some people find them helpful for dealing with their symptoms of treatment side effects.

Summary

Burkitt lymphoma is a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma that advances aggressively. Regardless of the stage at diagnosis, this type of cancer is typically treated with intensive chemotherapy and monoclonal antibodies. 

In some cases, doctors will perform surgery to remove a localized tumor. In later-stage Burkitt lymphoma, a bone marrow transplant may take place. 

A Word From Verywell 

Despite being an aggressive type of cancer, treatments are available for Burkitt lymphoma.  Treatment will depend on the stage of the cancer and how old you are. Younger people usually respond better to intensive chemotherapy treatments than older adults, for example.

Talk to your oncologist about your treatment options and the potential side effects of chemotherapy.

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13 Sources
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