Cancer can affect any part of the body, including the blood. Leukemia and lymphoma are both forms of blood cancer, but they affect the body in different ways.

The main difference is that leukemia affects the blood and bone marrow, while lymphomas mainly affect the lymph nodes.

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

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

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

Leukemia

Leukemia is cancer of the cells in bone marrow that form blood. It usually affects white blood cells, although it can affect other blood cells in some cases.

There are different types of leukemia, depending on how fast it develops and the type of cells it starts in.

The types of leukemia include:

Chronic leukemia develops more slowly, while acute cancers start suddenly and develop rapidly. Leukemia can affect children and adults, depending on the type.

Lymphoma

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

The two main types of lymphoma are Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. They affect different types of white blood cells.

Under a microscope, cells known as Reed-Sternberg cells will be visible if a person has Hodgkin lymphoma. A person with non-Hodgkin lymphoma will not have these cells in their blood.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is the more common type.

Hodgkin lymphoma usually occurs in young adults, but the risk increases again after the age of 55. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a common cancer in children, teens, and young adults, but over half of all cases are in people aged over 65.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that, in the United States in 2021, there will be around:

  • 61,090 new cases of all types of leukemia
  • 90,390 new cases of all types of lymphoma
    • 8,830 new cases of Hodgkin lymphoma
    • 81,560 new cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Both leukemia and lymphoma are significantly more common in males than in females.

The symptoms of leukemia and lymphoma are different, and also vary according to the type.

Chronic leukemia

This type develops slowly. People often find out they have it before symptoms appear, for example, during a routine blood test.

Possible symptoms include:

  • swelling of the spleen, liver, and lymph nodes
  • bleeding and bruising
  • other symptoms, depending on the type

Acute leukemia

Symptoms tend to be non-specific, which means they are common to a range of conditions.

They include:

Hodgkin lymphoma

Around 25% of people with Hodgkin lymphoma experience the following early signs:

After this, other symptoms may appear, including:

  • swollen lymph nodes, starting in the area where cancer begins
  • skin rash
  • pain in the areas of the affected lymph nodes after consuming alcohol
  • diseases of the diaphragm (breathing difficulty, pain in the chest, shoulder, or abdominal area, and lack of oxygen in the blood)
  • problems with the bones, bone marrow, lungs, and liver as cancer spreads
  • in rare cases, it can affect the brain and nervous system

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

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Enlarged lymph nodes are a key symptom of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The extent will depend on the stage of the disease, but it tends to spread out from around the diaphragm, the muscle just below the ribs that expands and contracts when a person breathes. Symptoms include:

  • swollen lymph nodes
  • fatigue and a general feeling of being unwell
  • symptoms in the lung, liver, kidney, and bone marrow as the disease progresses
  • in some cases, symptoms in the digestive tract, thyroid, bones, brain, testes, kidney, liver, breast, and skin

Leukemia and lymphoma are cancers that affect the blood cells. Different types impact the body in different ways. However, they have some common features.

In leukemia, cancer develops in the bone marrow, causing it to produce too many white blood cells. The cells keep dividing and eventually outnumber healthy blood cells. It mostly affects white blood cells, which play a key role in the immune system.

In lymphoma, cancer develops in the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. White blood cells known as B cells and T cells start to reproduce too quickly. Eventually, they outnumber the healthy cells and prevent the immune system from working correctly. As they accumulate, they can form tumors.

Eventually, cancer can also spread to the bone marrow, lungs, or liver. These are the most common destinations, but it can also affect other parts of the body.

Leukemia and lymphoma have different risk factors.

Leukemia

Factors that may increase the risk of developing leukemia depend on the type of leukemia. However, they may include:

  • exposure to radiation
  • exposure to benzene
  • past treatment with chemotherapy
  • a history of blood cancer
  • viral infections, such as the Epstein Barr Virus (EBV), which may increase the risk of AML
  • some genetic syndromes, such as Down syndrome and Fanconi anemia, which may increase the risk of ALL and AML

Lymphoma

The risk factors also vary for different types of lymphoma.

However, there are some overall risk factors, which include:

If a person has symptoms that may indicate leukemia or lymphoma, a doctor will most likely:

  • ask more about the symptoms
  • ask about personal and family medical history
  • run medical tests

The tests may include:

  • blood tests for lymphoma or leukemia
  • a bone marrow biopsy if the doctor suspects leukemia
  • a tissue biopsy if they suspect lymphoma

The doctor may also carry out tests to rule out other possible causes.

Specific treatment will depend on whether a person has leukemia or lymphoma and which subtype they have. However, there are some common approaches. These include:

The outlook for leukemia and lymphoma will depend on which condition a person has, as well as which subtype, the stage at diagnosis, and other factors.

A 5-year survival rate measures the chance of a person with a disease living 5 years or more after a diagnosis, compared with a person who does not have the disease.

According to the National Cancer Institute, a person with leukemia has an 65% overall chance of living at least 5 more years. However, this varies between types.

For example, the survival rate for childhood AAL is now around 90%. Moreover, if a child lives for 5 years after treatment, there is a good chance that cancer will not return, according to the ACS.

For a person with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the overall chance of living at least another 5 years is 73.2%, while for non-Hodgkin lymphoma it is 88.3%.

Racial disparities in outlook

Outcomes can vary according to population groups. Research published in 2017 found racial and gender disparities in the diagnosis, treatment, and outcomes for lymphoma.

The authors found, for example, that Black people tend to develop symptoms at a younger age and have more advanced disease when they see a doctor.

Black and Hispanic people and those with HIV may also have special treatment requirements that the health system does not currently take into account. These factors can worsen the outcome for an individual.

The authors call for more awareness and research to reduce health inequity in the treatment of lymphoma and other conditions.

Leukemia and lymphoma are both types of cancer that affect white blood cells and the immune system. However, they differ in the way they affect the body.

Treatment with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and targeted therapy can all help manage these conditions and, in some cases, cure them. However, the treatment approach and outlook will vary depending on the type of cancer a person has.

Survival rates are increasing all the time as scientists learn more and develop new ways of treating cancer.