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Andy Whitfield dies of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma; its rates have risen

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September 12, 2011|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Andy Whitfield, shown here in the Starz show "Spartacus: Blood and Sand," died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 39.
Andy Whitfield, shown here in the Starz show "Spartacus: Blood and… (Kirsty Griffin / Starz Original )

Andy Whitfield, star of the cable show "Spartacus: Blood and Sand," died Sunday of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at the age of 39.

The Welsh-born actor who moved to Australia was diagnosed with the disease about a year and a half ago, and bowed out of filming the second season of the Starz show after the cancer was discovered, People magazine reported at the time. The Lymphoma Research Foundation says that rates for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma have nearly doubled since the early 1970s.

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is a type of cancer that begins in the lymphatic system, which helps fight infections and diseases that invade the body. Lymphocytes are white blood cells that originate in bone marrow and defend against viruses and bacteria. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is the most common cancer of the lymphatic system and it can start in the lymph nodes, immune system organs found throughout the body that serve to catch foreign bodies.

Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma is the most common form of the disease, and it develops from white blood cells called B-lymphocytes, or B-cells.

Symptoms of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma can include swollen lymph nodes, fatigue, fever, night sweats, itching, abdominal pain and weight loss. While the cause of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is not known, the Mayo Clinic says risk factors include having a suppressed immune system from taking organ transplant medication. Viral and bacterial infections such as HIV, hepatitis C and Epstein-Barr can also make someone a more likely candidate, as can being older. Exposure to some chemicals may also increase susceptibility.

Treatment typically includes chemotherapy and radiation, and sometimes bone marrow or stem cell transplants. Biologic medications that are derived from biological foundations may also be used.

Recent studies have shed light on new ways to treat the disease as well as how lifestyle factors can play a role. A 2011 online study in the journal Nature Communications found that a new interaction between two proteins may be effective in treating diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. Scientists found that by inhibiting the two proteins, cancer cells died off. Cancer cells, unlike normal human cells, don't routinely expire, but multiply nonstop.

Lifestyle factors may influence non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a 2010 study in the journal Cancer found. People with the disease who also drank alcohol, were obese or smoked before they were diagnosed had generally worse survival rates compared with patients without those habits. Patients who had 20 or more years of smoking under their belt had a 76% higher risk of death compared with those who never smoked. And people who were obese had a 32% higher risk of death compared with those of normal weight.

Read more: 'Spartacus' star Andy Whitfield has died

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