Primary hepatic lymphoma

Last revised by Dr Eid Kakish on 11 Nov 2021

Primary hepatic lymphoma (PHL) is rare, with roughly 100 described cases. If it is being considered as a diagnosis, distal lymphadenopathy, splenomegaly, bone marrow disease, and leukemia should not be present for at least 6 months after the liver tumor has been detected (see: secondary hepatic lymphoma4.

It is a rare presentation of lymphoma (<1% of all non-Hodgkin lymphomas).

In contrast, according to one source, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) affects around 7 out of 100,000 people annually in the United States, with potential for secondary involvement of the liver. Therefore, secondary hepatic lymphoma is much more common.

The most common presentation includes abdominal pain, jaundice, and weight loss. The majority of patients will have elevated liver enzymes, although these may be normal. The typical age of presentation is around the age of 55 years. It has a male preponderance.

The exact cause of this primary hepatic lymphoma is still unclear; however, it is primarily found in immunocompromised patients due to AIDS/HIVcongenital immunodeficiency, collagen vascular disease, and immunosuppressant therapy for organ transplant. Reports have also shown infections as a probable cause, including EBVHIVhepatitis C and hepatitis B with chronic hepatitis and cirrhosis.

Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma comprises the majority of cases of primary liver lymphoma. Other histologic types include peripheral T-cell leukemia/lymphoma not-otherwise-specified, follicular lymphoma, mantle cell lymphoma, and Burkitt lymphoma.

Primary hepatic lymphoma is most commonly seen as a solitary mass (53-65%). It does not have characteristic radiographic features and can often be mistaken for other liver tumors. Liver biopsy is the most specific means of making the diagnosis.

Ultrasound is usually the initial radiological test performed:

  • typically hypoechoic to the liver parenchyma, probably due to high cellularity and lack of background stroma
  • rarely, they may be so hypoechoic as to appear similar to a cyst
  • occasionally have a "target" appearance with a central hyperechogenicity and outer hypoechogenicity
  • increased peripheral vascularity on color Doppler
  • frequently a single (~60%), solid, hypoattenuating (due to hypovascularity) hepatic lesion, as opposed to secondary lymphoma, which can be more diffusely infiltrating 1,2
  • there can be a large variation in size, but primary hepatic lymphoma tends to have a dominant mass, as opposed to secondary lymphomatous involvement of the liver, which tends to be more diffuse
  • variable contrast enhancement on CT, but tend to be hypoenhancing relative to liver on all phases, with no enhancement in some cases
  • can present as an ill-defined mass at the porta hepatis
  • can have hemorrhage, necrosis, and rim enhancement

MRI findings depend on the extent of infiltration.

  • T1: typically hypointense relative to remainder of liver
  • T2: often shows variable intensity
  • T1 C+ (Gd):  these lesions show poor enhancement but may show faint peripheral rim enhancement 
  • DWI/ADC: restricts diffusion, even in comparison to liver parenchyma, as it is hypercellular

Signal characteristics are almost identical to secondary lymphomatous involvement but manifestation as a single solid mass may favor a primary hepatic lymphoma 1.

PET/CT is useful in making the diagnosis and can also be used for staging.

  • FDG-PET
    • ​avid FDG uptake of the lymphomatous mass in the liver
    • can show or exclude extrahepatic sites of lymphoma with a high degree of sensitivity

Primary hepatic lymphoma is primarily treated with chemotherapy. R-CHOP (rituximab, cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, vincristine, and prednisone) is the most common chemotherapy regimen for advanced diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL). In the United States, this regimen is generally given every three weeks for 6 to 8 cycles. Other treatment options include radiation therapy or surgery.

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Cases and figures

  • Case 1: histology
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  • Case 1: on CT
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  • Case 1: on ultrasound with color doppler
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