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Leukemia vs. Lymphoma: What’s the Difference?

Overview

Key points

  1. Lymphoma and leukemia are cancers that affect the blood.
  2. Acute leukemia is the most common cancer among children. Adults can develop it, too.
  3. Both cancers are slow growing. This means you have a better chance of catching and treating them early, which improves your outlook.

Cancer can affect all parts of the body, including the blood. Leukemia and lymphoma are types of blood cancer. It’s estimated that in 2016 in the United States, approximately 60,000 people will be diagnosed with leukemia and 80,000 people will be diagnosed with lymphoma.

While the two cancers share certain symptoms, there are some differences in their origins, symptoms, and treatments. Keep reading to learn more about these two types of blood cancer.

Symptoms of leukemia vs. lymphoma

Symptoms

Leukemia is typically a slow-moving disease, so you might not notice symptoms right away. Over time, the effects of having a surplus of white blood cells coupled with decreasing numbers of red blood cells can take a toll on the body.

Leukemia can be either acute or chronic. In acute leukemia, the cancer spreads rapidly. Chronic leukemia is more common, and grows slower at the beginning stages. There are four main types of leukemia, each classified by the growth rate and origins of the cancer cells. These include:

Lymphoma specifically affects the lymph nodes. The type of lymphoma is based on the origins of the cancer cells. Some cases start in the lymphatic system, while others begin in the white blood cells. These cancers are also called non-Hodgkin lymphomas. They occur when T- or B-cells within white blood cells become abnormal. 

Read more: Symptoms of leukemia in pictures: Rashes and bruises»

On the other hand, Hodgkin disease is a cancer that originates with an enlarged lymph node. It then spreads to other lymph nodes, and eventually to other organs such as the lungs. Hodgkin disease is not as common as non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Your symptoms will depend on whether you have leukemia, Hodgkin disease, or non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Leukemia symptomsHodgkin disease symptomsNon-Hodgkin lymphoma symptoms
bruises easily
chest pain
difficulty breathing
excessive bleeding, including frequent nosebleeds or bleeding gums
excessive fatigue
fever and night sweats
headaches
increased body infections
itchy skin
loss of appetite and weight loss
swollen lymph nodes
swollen, painful abdomen
 

Causes

Causes

Both leukemia and lymphoma stem from problems with your white blood cells.

With leukemia, your bone marrow produces too many white blood cells that don’t naturally die off in the way that normal aging blood cells do. Instead, they keep dividing and ultimately take over healthy red blood cells. This becomes problematic because your body depends on red blood cells for normal oxygen and nutrient transport. Leukemia may similarly start in the lymph nodes.

Lymphoma often begins in the lymph nodes, which are the small tissues that help your body fight infection. Certain types of lymphoma may also be caused by the spread of abnormal white blood cells in other parts of the body.

Risk factors

Risk Factors

Leukemia is the most common childhood cancer. Approximately 2,700 children are diagnosed in the United States each year. Acute leukemia accounts for most of the cases of leukemia in children.

Learn more: Common symptoms of leukemia in children »

Adults can also develop leukemia. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia is the most common type of chronic leukemia among adults. They can also develop acute leukemia or chronic myelogenous leukemia. While there are factors that may increase your risk for developing leukemia, some people develop leukemia when they have no risk factors, and other people with known risk factors never develop this cancer. Risk factors may include:

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

Hodgkin lymphoma is most common in people between the ages of 15 and 40 and 55 and older. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma can occur at any age. It’s most common in people 60 and older. It’s also rare in children younger than three. Additional risk factors include:

Risk factors for Hodgkin diseaseRisk factors for non-Hodgkin lymphoma
previous infection with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), the virus responsible for mononucleosisexposure to certain chemicals
family historyprevious chemotherapy or radiation therapy
weakened immune systemweakened immune system
chronic helicobacter pylori infection
 

Diagnosis

Diagnosis

The first step in diagnosing leukemia is a blood test and a blood cell exam. If the test shows that the counts for your different types of blood cells are abnormal, your doctor may suspect leukemia. Your doctor may also order a bone marrow biopsy to help confirm the diagnosis. Initial results may be available in as little as 24 hours. A detailed report, which can provide your doctor with useful information for your treatment plan, may take a couple of weeks.

A bone marrow biopsy may be a little uncomfortable, but it is a relatively fast procedure. It usually lasts around 20 minutes, and doesn’t require a hospital stay. Your doctor will likely take the sample from your hip bone. They’ll use a local anesthetic to numb the area during the procedure. You may have a dull pain in your hip for a short time after the biopsy.

To diagnose lymphoma, your doctor will need to take a sample, or biopsy, from the affected tissue. They may be able to do the procedure using a local anesthetic. In some cases, you may need general anesthetic, which means you’ll be unconscious during the procedure. If you have lymphoma, your doctor may also order a bone marrow biopsy or body scan to help determine the stage of your cancer.

Treatment

Treatment

Treatment for leukemia is based on your condition at diagnosis. If the cancer is slow moving, your doctor might use a “watchful waiting” approach. This is most common for chronic lymphocytic leukemia that often causes no symptoms.

If your doctor decides to move forward with treatment, they’ll focus on treatments that prevent abnormal cells from forming in the blood and lymph nodes. These may include:

  • chemotherapy
  • radiation therapy
  • stem cell transplants
  • targeted therapy, or drugs that prevent further abnormal cell growth

Like leukemia, the treatment options for lymphoma depend on the extent of the cancer diagnosis. For Hodgkin disease, the cancer cells are easier to treat if they’re still in the lymph nodes. The most common treatments for this type of lymphoma are chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Read more: Lymphoma alternative treatments »

These therapies are also used to treat non-Hodgkin disease. Your doctor may also use other treatments similar to those used for leukemia. For example, they may use targeted therapy to directly prevent white blood cells from becoming abnormal.

Outlook

Outlook

Leukemia and lymphoma grow slower than other cancers. Cancer is usually easier to treat if caught in earlier stages. The slow growth of leukemia and lymphoma increases the likelihood that it will be caught and treated earlier, which can improve your outlook.

According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, between 2004 and 2010 there was an overall five year survival rate in about 60 percent of people with leukemia nearly 88 percent of people with lymphoma.

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