Lymphoma and Lyme Disease

Deer tick, Ixodes scapularis, on a fingertip.

You gradually feel like the life is being sucked out of you. Every day you become more and more fatigued to the point of having difficulty getting up in the morning. Lymph nodes in your neck begin to swell. Joint pains show up that can make even the simplest task painful, and the list of symptoms goes on. What is happening?

Lyme Disease and Lymphoma

These symptoms alone are certainly reason enough to see a doctor, and they can indicate any number of different diseases.

Only time, lab tests and perhaps scans and biopsies will tell. In the present article, however, two specific illnesses that involve lymph node swelling and fatigue are considered, and potential similarities highlighted. 

Lyme disease and lymphoma:  they may seem very different at first -- one is an infectious disease and the other a malignancy -- but sometimes Oncologists and Infectious Disease specialists are known to cross paths when consulting on the same patient, to try to figure out what is going on. Both Lyme disease and non-Hodgkin lymphoma have been on the rise in the United States. In many parts of the country, the odds of contracting Lyme disease are much greater than for developing lymphoma, however.

The CDC has estimated that there are probably ten times the number of Lyme cases in the population than have been reported, and it is the fastest growing vector borne infection in the U.S. The bite of a tick transmits Lyme disease and can transmit other infections as well with similar lists of symptoms.

Overlapping Symptoms

Lyme disease is known as the, “new great imitator.” The disease classically known as the great imitator is the sexually transmitted bacterial illness, syphilis. Lyme has been granted this title because it mimics so many other disease processes. This makes Lyme disease very difficult to diagnose based on symptoms.

The initial diagnosis of lymphoma requires a biopsy -- it is not a diagnosis that is made based upon symptoms alone. Lymphoma and Lyme disease have many symptoms in common. Both can have more obvious or suggestive clinical presentations, but each can also manifest more subtly and elusively. While you may not experience all of these symptoms if you have Lymphoma, or Lyme, it is important to be aware of what your body is telling you in order to effectively communicate with your doctor.

Other Connections

Infection with Borrelia Burgdorferi, the bacterial pathogen in Lyme disease, not only has the capacity to mimic lymphoma and other diseases, with overlapping symptoms, but autopsy research out of Europe has lead some investigators to wonder whether Lyme disease can possibly lead to specific types of lymphoma in certain individuals.

Much more research on the topic is needed, but the interplay between pathogens and malignancy has been shown for a number of different lymphomas, so it is not out of the question, but more evidence is needed to support this hypothesis.

The Lyme disease pathogen has the ability to penetrate cells, and persist chronically, interacting with the immune system. Thus, the possibility of a resulting lymphoma in some people should not be surprising, according to pathologist Dr. Alan Macdonald, who specializes in studying Lyme infection in the brain; he considers a type of high grade lymphoma that is rare, but can be found in people with weakened immune systems resulting from HIV, and now it seems possibly Lyme disease. One of the possibilities being explored is the potential for suppression of the body’s immune response by Lyme as a contributor in these unlikely lymphomas.

Bottom Line

If you are experiencing any of the nonspecific symptoms like the ones listed above, there is no reason to go it alone. Work with a doctor who is a good match for you, as an individual; educate yourself on whatever disease it turns out to be. Good resources for Lyme disease include the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) while good sites for general information about lymphoma include the American Cancer Society.


CDC. Signs and Symptoms of Untreated Lyme Disease. Accessed January 2016.

Lymphoma Coalition. Sings and Symptoms. Accessed January 2016.

Lymphomation. Lymphoma Statistics. Accessed January 2016.

Dr MacDonald, Pathologist. Accessed January 2016.

Lymphoma Association. Central Nervous System Lymphoma. Accessed January 2016.

Schöllkopf C, Melbye M, Munksgaard L, et al. Borrelia infection and risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Blood. 2008;111(12):5524-5529.

Lyme Neuroborreliosis Mimicking Primary CNS Lymphoma. Accessed January 2016.

Infection by Borrelia burgdorferi and cutaneous B-cell lymphoma. Accessed January 2016.

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