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Leukemia and Lymphoma: What’s the Difference?

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Lymphoma and Leukemia: What’s the Difference? Divakaran Dileep/PhotoSpin

Leukemia and lymphoma are two types of cancer that are found in the blood. Someone in the United States is diagnosed with some type of blood cancer every three minutes, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. (1)

While there are some similarities between the conditions, there are also significant differences in how the diseases develop and what symptoms are associated with them.

What is Leukemia?

Leukemia is cancer that typically begins in cells in the bone marrow that make blood. Leukemia most often affects white blood cells, although it can affect other types of blood cells. White blood cells are part of the body’s immune system to fight off diseases. (2)

When someone has leukemia, their bone marrow produces too many cells that are abnormal. These cells don’t die off when they should. Instead, they continue to multiply and crowd out other healthy cells, including the red blood cells that carry oxygen and nutrients and healthy white blood cells that fight infections. (2)

In 2014, approximately 52,380 people in the United States were diagnosed with leukemia. Over 327,500 people in this country are currently living with or are in remission from leukemia. (1)

Leukemia is known as either myeloid or lymphoid, depending on which type of white blood cells are affected by the disease.

Leukemia is further categorized based on how quickly it develops. Acute types of leukemia tend to develop quickly and cause more severe symptoms as large numbers of abnormal cells quickly overrun healthy cells in the blood.

Chronic leukemia, which is the more common type, tends to grow more slowly in the early stages of the disease, and may cause fewer symptoms. (2,4)

Some types of leukemia can occur in both children and adults, while other types typically occur only in children or in adults. One type of leukemia called juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia. JMML usually occurs only in children under the age of six. (2)

What is Lymphoma?

Lymphoma is the name used for a group of cancers that develop in the lymphatic system. This system is a group of channels that carry lymph throughout the body and includes lymph nodes or glands, spleen, thymus gland and bone marrow. Lymphoma is classified into one of two forms, depending on the type of cancer cells that are found in the blood. (3)

In 2014, a total of 79,990 new cases of lymphoma were diagnosed. Approximately 761, 660 people in the United States are living with or are in remission from lymphoma. (1)

Lymphoma is divided into two main categories, depending on which type of cells are affected by the disease. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is also sometimes referred to as Hodgkin’s disease. HL develops from a specific type of lymph cell. All other types of lymphoma are referred to as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma or NHL. (3)

Lymphoma can develop at any age. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is most common in young adults ages 16 -34 and in people over age 55. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is more common in older people. (3)

Leukemia Symptoms

The symptoms of leukemia are generally the same for acute and chronic forms of the disease. However, acute leukemia produces symptoms quickly, while symptoms may develop very slowly in chronic leukemia. (2)

Common symptoms of leukemia include: (2, 4)

• Feeling abnormally tired

• Bruising easily

• Getting more infections than normal

• Bleeding that is difficult to stop

• Night sweats and fevers

• Headaches

Lymphoma Symptoms

Symptoms of lymphoma often begin with a painless swelling in a lymph node, which may occur in the neck, groin or under the arm. As the condition progresses, other lymph nodes may swell and put pressure on surrounding tissue, such as nerves or blood vessels. This can cause tingling, numbness or pain.

Swelling in the abdomen, such as if the spleen is affected, can cause abdominal discomfort or a feeling of fullness in the stomach, even when little food has been eaten.

Other symptoms of lymphoma include: (3)

• Fever or chills

• Weight loss that cannot be explained

• Night sweats

• Low energy

• Itching on the skin, often on the legs

It is important to note that some symptoms of both leukemia and lymphoma can also be caused by other, unrelated conditions. For example, fevers or chills may result from a short-term illness such as the flu. Symptoms that persist for a longer time should be checked out by a health care professional.

Leukemia Risk Factors

Although researchers have not identified the exact cause of leukemia, they believe it results from a combination of inherited and environmental factors. Known environmental risk factors for leukemia include exposure to radiation, including radiation treatment for other types of cancer. Exposure to the chemical benzene and cigarette smoking also increase the risk of developing leukemia. (2)

Lymphoma Risk Factors

Researchers have not determined the exact causes of lymphoma, but age is a known consideration. Older people are both more likely to develop lymphoma and less likely to respond as well to treatments as younger people.

Other risk factors for lymphoma include medical conditions that compromise the immune system such as HIV, infections such as Epstein-Barr virus, and exposure to toxic chemicals including pesticides, herbicides, benzene and some types of hair dye. A family history of lymphoma can also increase your risk of developing the disease. (3)

Early detection is critical for successful treatment of both lymphoma and leukemia. If you have questions about either condition or have symptoms that concern you, talk to your health care provider.


1) Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Facts and Statistics. Web. September 7, 2015.

2) MedicineNet. Leukemia. Melissa Conrad Stoppler, MD. Web. September 7, 2015.

3) eMedicine Health. Lymphoma (Hodgkin’s Disease and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma). Jerry R. Balentine, DO, FACEP. Web. September 7, 2015.

4) Healthline. Leukemia vs. Lymphoma: Origins, Types, and Treatments. Kristeen Cherney. Web. September 7, 2015.

Reviewed September 10, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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