According to an article recently published in the British Journal of Cancer, women who are long-term smokers have a significantly increased risk of developing follicular lymphoma compared to women who do not smoke.

Follicular lymphoma is a slow-growing subset of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) is a form of cancer that begins in the cells of the lymph system. The lymph system includes the spleen, thymus, tonsils, bone marrow, lymph nodes and circulating immune cells. The main cells in the lymph system are lymphocytes, of which there are two types: B and T-cells. Each of these cells has a very specific function in aiding the body to fight infection. NHL is characterized by the excessive accumulation of atypical (cancerous) lymphocytes. These lymphocytes can crowd the lymph system and suppress the formation and function of other immune and blood cells. While NHL is categorized by the type of lymphocyte it involves, it is also further defined by the rate at which the cancer grows, based on the appearance of the cells under a microscope. High-grade or aggressive NHL is the fastest growing and low-grade or indolent lymphoma is the slowest growing. Follicular lymphoma is considered incurable with standard therapeutic approaches, except for the possible exception of some who are treated with stem cell transplants.

The incidence of NHL is increasing in the United States. Research efforts have been focused on the identification of environmental factors that may increase the risk of the development of NHL. Results from some studies have associated potential links between the exposure of insecticides, Epstein-Barr virus infection, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents and possible chronic hepatitis C infection to the development of NHL. However, these results are difficult to confirm. Nonetheless, researchers continue to review data in the hopes of identifying individuals at risk, so that appropriate screening measures may be initiated to catch the disease early, or changes in behavior may be suggested for these individuals.

Researchers from Yale University recently conducted a clinical study comparing women who had been diagnosed with NHL to those who were healthy. The researchers singled out specific subtypes of NHL in this study. The study included 601 individuals who had been diagnosed with NHL and 718 individuals who did not have NHL. Several individual and environmental variables were considered and compared in this evaluation. The data indicated that the incidence of follicular lymphoma was increased by 80% in individuals with a 34-pack year or greater history of cigarette smoking, and by 50% in individuals with a 16 to 33-year pack history of cigarette smoking, compared to non-smokers. Smoking habits did not increase the incidence of other subtypes of NHL.

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The researchers concluded that results from this study indicate that long-term cigarette smoking appears to significantly increase the risk of the development of follicular lymphoma in women, adding to the list of diseases caused by smoking. Women who are smokers may wish to speak with their physician about smoking cessation programs.

Reference: Morton LM, Holford TR, Leaderer B, et al. Cigarette Smoking and Risk of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma Subtypes Among Women.

British Journal of Cancer. 2003;2087-2092.

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