SA Olympic medal winner campaigns for lymphoma awareness

Image: Supplied

Lymphoma is like the cuckoo of sicknesses – with the symptoms often mimicking other illnesses, leading to the disease being more frequently misdiagnosed than not.

Difficult diagnosis

Lawrence Brittain (a South African rower who competed in the men's coxless pair event at the 2016 Summer Olympics) was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2015 and says it came as a huge shock. “As a professional athlete I was training two to three times a day so the thought that I could have cancer was practically impossible for me to comprehend.”

Even with both his parents being doctors (his father is an oncologist and his mother is the team doctor for the South African rowing squad), Brittain explains that it still took some time before he was eventually diagnosed with lymphoma – with his symptoms prompting doctors to first test for, and rule out, illnesses such as bilharzia.

Read: Immune therapy makes headway against lymphoma

“As I was training on a dam every day, it was first suspected that I had picked up a waterborne sickness. Lymphoma can present itself as so many other different kinds of illnesses and doctors don’t jump to the thought “cancer” straight away.”

The internet is littered with similar stories about patients who thought that they had a stubborn dose of flu and/or fatigue only to find out that they have lymphoma. Others have been wrongly diagnosed with other illnesses, exhaustion, stress, anxiety, allergies, asthma and depression – once again to finally discover they have been suffering from lymphoma, a cancer which affects the blood and lymphatic system.

It all adds up

Misdiagnosis and misinformation seem to be common words associated with lymphoma, and in fact statistics from the Lymphoma Coalition show that 62% of patients with lymphoma are initially misdiagnosed. 

Only 35% of those suffering with lymphoma are diagnosed properly the first time, while 46% of patients were given the wrong medication based on their misdiagnosis. In addition to misdiagnosis, there is also a lot of unknown information about lymphoma. For example most people are not aware that there are 60 different sub-types of the illness.

World Lymphoma Awareness Day – knowledge leads to better outcomes

With15 September being World Lymphoma Awareness Day, the Lymphoma Coalition, together with an organisation called Campaigning 4 Cancer (C4C), have launched an awareness campaign (Know Your Subtype) to assist people in understanding the signs and symptoms of lymphoma to help avoid misdiagnosis, and to also understand the many different sub-types of this disease.

Read: 'Lymphoma is not a death sentence'

“Lymphoma was once thought of as a group of diseases that were classified as either Hodgkin or non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Now 60 subtypes of lymphomas have been identified – information which has led to more targeted and more effective therapy protocols and ultimately improved patient outcomes,” says Oncologist, and father to Lawrence Brittain, Dr David Brittain.

“Improved treatments and patient outcomes are the ultimate goal – and this is why understanding the symptoms of Lymphoma for quicker diagnosis, and then knowing your subtype for accurate treatment is so important.”

Symptoms of Lymphoma:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Trouble breathing
  • Coughing and chest pain
  • Pain or swelling in the abdomen
  • Swelling in the legs or ankles
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Unusual itching
  • Enlarged Tonsils
  • Headache
  • Fatigue and an unusual lack of energy

“As these symptoms show, it is easy to understand why Lymphoma is diagnosed as something else,” says Dr Brittain. “However, if you have been suffering from any of these symptoms on an ongoing basis or think that you may have Lymphoma, make an appointment to visit your health care practitioner for further testing.”

With both of Lawrence Brittain's parents being doctors he was lucky enough to have access to experts who gave him the knowledge he needed to treat, and beat, his specific subtype of lymphoma. However, not everyone is this fortunate, so the Know Your Subtype campaign is aimed at improving access to a pool of resources and knowledge.

Know your subtype – and get the best treatment

Stats show that one in four patients are not aware of their particular subtype at the time of diagnosis, and nearly half don’t understand the characteristics of their subtype. Without this understanding, patients may not be aware of their specific diagnosis and unable to find information or make informed decisions about treatment or support.

Read: 10 quick facts on lymphoma

(The Lymphoma Coalitions global patient survey showed that 60% of patients research their cancer online, but without knowing the subtype they aren’t able to search for the specific information they need.)

Dr Brittain says that increased/improved knowledge and awareness on lymphoma subtypes will lead to better treatment for patients and a better availability of information to the public and the medical sector alike.

The Brittain father and son duo are now taking time out of their busy schedules to help drive lymphoma awareness and conclude by highlighting the fact that despite receiving a cancer diagnosis in 2015, Lawrence has fought his way back to compete in the Olympics by having the right attitude as well as being armed with the right information.

For more information, visit: and to learn more about the importance of knowing your subtype by visiting

Read more:

Symptoms of cancer

Treating cancer

Preventing cancer

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Have you entered our Health of the Nation survey?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
32% - 9432 votes
68% - 19939 votes