Cancer can affect any part of the body, including the blood. Leukemia and lymphoma are both forms of blood cancer. The main difference is that leukemia affects the blood and bone marrow, while lymphomas tend to affect the lymph nodes.

Though there are some similarities between the two types of cancer, their causes and origins, symptoms, treatment, and survival rate are different.

In this article, we take a comprehensive look at the similarities and differences between leukemia and lymphoma.

What are leukemia and lymphoma?

Leukemia and lymphoma are two types of cancer that affect the blood. Both cancers typically affect the white blood cells.

Leukemia

leukemia cells Image credit: Paulo Henrique Orlandi Mourao, (2018, April 30).
Leukemia is often treated with chemotherapy, which requires a long recovery time between sessions.
Image credit: Paulo Henrique Orlandi Mourao, (2018, April 30).

Leukemia occurs when the bone marrow produces too many abnormal white blood cells. It is typically a slow-growing cancer, though there are cases where it progresses faster.

If a person has leukemia, their abnormal white blood cells do not die off in a normal cycle. Instead, the white blood cells multiply rapidly, eventually leaving less room for red blood cells required to carry oxygen through the body.

There are four main types of leukemia, classified according to their rate of growth and where the cancer originated in the body.

The types of leukemia include:

Lymphoma

Lymphoma starts in the immune system and affects the lymph nodes and lymphocytes, which are a type of white blood cell. There are two main types of lymphocyte, B cells and T cells.

The two main types of lymphoma are:

  1. Hodgkin lymphoma, which involves a specific type of abnormal B cell called a Reed-Sterberg cell. This type is less common.
  2. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which can start in either B cells or T cells.

These types are based on the origin of the cancer cell and how quickly or aggressively they progress.

The type of lymphoma a person has will affect their symptoms as well as their treatment options.

Prevalence

Lymphoma is slightly more prevelant than leukemia. Research estimates that there will be 60,300 new cases of leukemia and 83,180 new cases of lymphoma in 2018.

This report also states that both leukemia and lymphoma are more common in males than females.

Lymphoma is estimated to have a higher survival rate than leukemia. The estimated death rates for 2018 are 24,370 for leukemia and 20,960 for lymphoma.

Symptoms

lymph nodes being felt by doctor
Enlarged or swollen lymph nodes are one of the primary symptoms of leukemia.

Leukemia is often a slow-moving or chronic condition. Depending on which type of leukemia a person has, symptoms may vary and may not be immediately apparent.

Symptoms of leukemia include:

  • enlarged lymph nodes
  • shortness of breath
  • feeling tired
  • fever
  • bleeding from nose or gums
  • feeling weak, dizzy, or lightheaded
  • chronic infections or infections that do not heal
  • easily bruised skin
  • loss of appetite
  • swelling in the abdomen
  • unintended weight loss
  • rust-colored spots in the skin
  • bone pain or tenderness
  • excessive sweating, especially at night

By comparison, the symptoms of lymphoma vary depending on the type. Hodgkin lymphoma symptoms can include:

  • a lump under the skin, typically in the groin, neck, or armpit
  • fever
  • unintentional weight loss
  • fatigue
  • drenching night sweats
  • loss of appetite
  • coughing or trouble breathing
  • severe itching

Symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma include:

  • a swollen abdomen
  • feeling full with a small amount of food
  • fever
  • enlarged lymph nodes
  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath
  • cough
  • chest pressure and pain
  • weight loss
  • sweating and chills

Causes and origins

In both conditions, leukemia and lymphoma are a result of problems with the body’s white blood cells.

Leukemia occurs when the bone marrow produces too many white blood cells. These white blood cells do not die off in a normal cycle. Instead, they keep dividing and eventually push out other healthy blood cells.

In other cases, leukemia starts in the lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are responsible for helping the immune system fight infections. Similarly, lymphoma typically starts in the lymph nodes or other lymphatic tissues.

Lymph nodes are all connected to each other. Hodgkin’s lymphoma spreads from one lymph node to the next.

If a person has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the cancer may spread sporadically, with some types being more aggressive than others.

In either type, the cancer can also spread to the bone marrow, lungs, or liver.

Risk factors

Leukemia and lymphoma have different risk factors.

Chronic leukemia is common in adults. By contrast, children are more likely to be diagnosed with acute leukemia. In fact, acute leukemia is the most common type of cancer in children.

Although anyone could develop leukemia, some of the risk factors include:

  • genetic disorders
  • family history
  • exposure to certain types of chemicals
  • previous radiation or chemotherapy
  • smoking

Lymphoma can occur at any age. Hodgkin’s lymphoma typically occurs between the ages of 15 and 40 or after 50. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma can occur at nearly any age but it most common among older adults.

Hodgkin’s lymphoma risk factors include:

  • family history
  • weakened immune system
  • previous infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection
  • HIV infection

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma risk factors include:

  • weakened immune system
  • exposure to some chemicals
  • chronic Helicobacter pylori infection
  • previous radiation or chemotherapy
  • autoimmune diseases

Diagnosis

Leukemia and lymphoma are diagnosed differently but both require recording a person’s medical history and doing a physical exam.

To diagnosis leukemia, a doctor will do a blood test to look for abnormal blood counts. They may also perform a bone marrow biopsy.

A bone marrow biopsy does not usually require a hospital stay. A doctor will apply local anesthesia before taking a sample. In some cases, a doctor may order chromosome testing or imaging tests, such as X-rays or computed tomography (CT) scans.

If a doctor suspects that a person has lymphoma, they may take a biopsy from the tissue that appears to be affected. This procedure may require general anesthesia, but a doctor may be able to use a local anesthesia.

Treatment

woman in hospital bed recovering from leukemia treatments
Leukemia is often treated with chemotherapy, which requires a long recovery time between sessions.

Leukemia and lymphoma require different treatments. The type of leukemia or lymphoma may also make a difference in how the cancer is treated.

Chronic leukemia may not be immediately treated. Instead, a doctor may actively watch the progression of the cancer. This approach is most common with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. When treatment is administered, a doctor may use:

Hodgkin’s lymphoma is typically easier to treat that non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma before it spreads from the lymph nodes.

Treatment for both Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma can include:

  • radiation therapy
  • chemotherapy
  • drugs that prevent further growth of abnormal cells
  • targeted therapy
  • immunotherapy
  • high-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant
  • surgery (in rare cases)

Outlook

A 5-year survival rate refers to how many people with a specific type of cancer are alive 5 years after diagnosis. Survival rates may vary by stage of the cancer at diagnosis.

According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate for all people diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma is 86 percent. For non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, it is 70 percent.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the 5-year survival rate for leukemia was 61 percent between 2008 and 2014.

Some types of leukemia and lymphoma are slow-progressing cancers, which gives doctors a better chance at catching them in the earlier stages.

When cancer is caught in earlier stages, it is usually easier to treat. In addition to their overall health, early treatment can often improve a person’s outlook.