Stage I and II follicular non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL) is clinically defined as a localized disease. To study the possibility that this disease is in fact disseminated, we used the sensitive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method using translocation (14;18) as marker. Samples from 21 patients who were clinically diagnosed with stage I or II follicular NHL were analyzed for the presence of t(14;18)-positive cells using PCR. We analyzed (1) the diagnostic lymph node biopsy and (2) the peripheral blood or bone marrow samples from these patients. Translocation (14;18) cells were detected in the diagnostic lymph node biopsies of 12 patients. In 9 of these patients, t(14;18)-positive cells were detected in peripheral blood and/or bone marrow samples at diagnosis and/or after therapy. Thus, in 75% of the follicular NHL patients carrying the t(14;18) as a marker for lymphoma cells, t(14;18)- positive cells were detected in peripheral blood and bone marrow at diagnosis and after therapy. Our results show that t(14;18)-positive cells can be detected in the circulation of patients with stage I and II follicular NHL, indicating that, although diagnosed as localized, the disease is disseminated.