Burkitt’s leukemia, or Burkitt’s lymphoma, occurs when tumor cells develop in the bone marrow and bloodstream. Burkitt’s lymphoma is a rare type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Lymphoma is a blood cancer that affects B lymphocytes and how well a person can fight infections. Although people worldwide can develop Burkitt’s lymphoma, it primarily affects children living in sub-Saharan Africa. Doctors have found links between Burkitt’s lymphoma and the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and chronic malaria.

In the United States, Burkitt’s lymphoma typically occurs when someone has a compromised immune system.

This article will explore Burkitt’s leukemia and how it differs from Burkitt’s lymphoma. It will also look at the potential symptoms and treatment options.

A scientist performing a test to diagnose Burkitt leukemia.Share on Pinterest
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“Burkitt’s leukemia” is, for the most part, interchangeable with “Burkitt’s lymphoma.”

However, according to one 2008 case study, doctors use the term Burkitt’s leukemia to signify that bone marrow contains 20% or more malignant Burkitt’s cells.

Lymphoma is a type of cancer that affects the white blood cells, or lymphocytes. There are three types of lymphocytes:

  • B lymphocytes (B cells)
  • T lymphocytes (T cells)
  • natural killer cells

Burkitt’s lymphoma is an aggressive form of lymphoma that attacks the B cells and grows rapidly. In fact, the doubling time of Burkitt’s lymphoma is just 25 hours, according to the case study above.

Intensive chemotherapy is the most common treatment option for Burkitt’s lymphoma, and it is often successful in both children and adults.

There are three types of Burkitt’s lymphoma, which can arise from B cells at different stages of development. They are:

  • endemic
  • sporadic
  • immunodeficiency-associated

Endemic Burkitt’s lymphoma occurs most often in Africa, where it is associated with chronic malaria and EBV. It usually occurs in children aged 4–7 years. Endemic Burkitt’s lymphoma involves the jaw and other facial bones and has less involvement with abdominal organs.

Sporadic Burkitt’s lymphoma usually affects the abdomen, particularly the ileocecal area, which is where the small intestine turns into the large intestine. Sporadic Burkitt’s lymphoma may also involve other sites, such as the:

  • layers of the membrane surrounding the abdominal organs, or the omentum
  • ovaries
  • breasts
  • kidneys
  • tonsils, adenoids, and other lymphoid tissue

Sporadic Burkitt’s lymphoma occurs worldwide. In the U.S., it is responsible for 1–2% of all adult lymphoma cases and 40% of cases in children.

Immunodeficiency-associated Burkitt’s lymphoma occurs primarily in people with HIV, individuals with congenital immunodeficiency, and allograft recipients.

Symptoms of Burkitt’s lymphoma include:

  • swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpit, or groin
  • fever
  • night sweats
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • pain in the abdomen
  • unexplained weight loss

If lymphoma affects the bone marrow, it can trigger:

  • a pale appearance
  • bruising
  • fatigue
  • bone pain
  • a higher risk of infection
  • a higher risk of bleeding

EBV has shown a strong association with Burkitt’s lymphoma. EBV is a member of the herpes virus family, and it is one of the most common human viruses.

Once an individual has EBV, it remains dormant inside their body and can reactivate. EBV is contagious and most commonly spreads through bodily fluids, especially saliva.

According to the Leukaemia Foundation, endemic Burkitt’s lymphoma is associated with EBV in nearly every case. In sporadic Burkitt’s lymphoma, EBV is present in approximately 30% of cases. EBV is also present in 40% of immunodeficiency-associated cases.

Children are more likely to have Burkitt’s lymphoma than adults. It accounts for up to 30% of children’s non-Hodgkin lymphomas and 1% of adult lymphomas, says the Leukaemia Foundation.

Children typically receive a Burkitt’s lymphoma diagnosis around the age of 5–10 years, while adults usually receive a diagnosis at around age 30–50 years. Burkitt’s lymphoma is also four times more common in males than in females.

Doctors usually need to conduct different tests before they can make a diagnosis of Burkitt’s lymphoma and Burkitt’s leukemia.

For example, they may perform a bone marrow or lymph node biopsy to inspect cells under a microscope.

Doctors may also check whether or not lymphoma has developed in other areas of the body using:

  • physical examinations to check for lumps
  • blood tests
  • CT scans and MRI scans
  • a lumbar puncture, if there is a concern that there may be lymphoma cells in the spinal fluid

Without treatment, Burkitt’s lymphoma rapidly spreads. However, combination chemotherapy has high response rates and is often effective. Combination chemotherapy involves using more than one medication at the same time to treat cancer.

Intrathecal chemotherapy may help treat Burkitt’s lymphoma in the central nervous system. Doctors administer this chemotherapy into the fluid between the membranes of the brain and spinal cord. Some other options include monoclonal antibodies combined with chemotherapy and stem cell transplants.

As with most cancers, treatment depends on the stage at diagnosis.

People with stage 1 or 2 Burkitt’s lymphoma typically have chemotherapy as their primary treatment. Surgery before chemotherapy is a potential treatment option if the tumor only affects one area.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the duration of chemotherapy for those with stage 1 or 2 Burkitt’s lymphoma can range from 9 weeks to 6 months. A 9-week course of treatment is typically adequate if surgery successfully removes the tumor first.

Stages 3 and 4 Burkitt’s lymphoma require more intensive chemotherapy. The ACS adds that since these lymphomas grow quickly, the chemotherapy cycles tend to be short, with little rest between each course of treatment.

After receiving intensive chemotherapy, children with a localized form of this condition have an over 90% 5-year survival rate. Children with widespread disease, including those with Burkitt’s leukemia, may have an over 90% complete response rate.

Adults show an overall survival rate of 50–70% and response rates of 65–100%.

Intensive chemotherapy is often successful in treating Burkitt’s lymphoma. However, intensive chemotherapy can be acutely toxic for adults and cause other treatment-related complications, such as tumor lysis syndrome.

Burkitt’s leukemia is Burkitt’s lymphoma but with the prevalence of malignant Burkitt’s cells in the bone marrow reaching 20%.

Burkitt’s lymphoma is an aggressive condition, and it is more common in children than adults. There are three types of Burkitt’s lymphoma: endemic, sporadic, and immunodeficiency-associated.

EBV, which is a contagious virus that typically spreads through saliva, has a strong association with all types of Burkitt’s lymphoma.

Diagnoses of Burkitt’s lymphoma and Burkitt’s leukemia may involve biopsies and imaging tests, such as CT scans or MRI scans.

The most effective treatment option for Burkitt’s lymphoma is intensive chemotherapy. Although this treatment method is usually successful, it can result in some complications and toxicity, especially in adults.