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Leukemia vs. lymphoma

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was reviewed on September 7, 2022.

Leukemia and lymphoma are easily confused because they’re both types of blood cancer. Leukemia usually occurs in bone marrow, while lymphoma originates in the lymphatic system and mainly targets lymph nodes and lymph tissue. Leukemia is the most common type of blood cancer in children. Lymphoma is more commonly diagnosed in adults, but it may develop in children as well.

This article will explore:

Key differences between leukemia and lymphoma

Leukemia usually begins in the bone marrow and spreads through the bloodstream. When this occurs, the bone marrow produces mutated white blood cells, called lymphocytes, that populate the bloodstream and crowd out healthy blood cells.

Leukemia occurs in many forms, but it’s diagnosed as either acute or chronic. Acute leukemia cells are fast-growing and may require aggressive treatment. Chronic leukemia cells often build up slowly and don’t cause symptoms right away. Determining the type of leukemia helps doctors choose an appropriate treatment plan.

Lymphoma typically originates in lymph nodes or other areas of the lymphatic system. Lymph nodes (small glands found throughout the body) filter out harmful substances and contain lymphocytes, which help the body fight infection and disease. There are different types of lymphocytes. Some make antibodies, while others help kill tumor cells or control the immune response. With lymphoma, the body overproduces lymphocytes.

The two main types of lymphoma are Hodgkin lymphoma and, most commonly, non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Each type of lymphoma involves different lymphocytes, grows at a different rate and responds differently to treatment.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of blood cancers vary. Leukemia and lymphoma aren’t diagnosed based on symptoms alone because they both have similar symptoms. These symptoms include weakness, fatigue, bone pain, infections, fevers and weight loss.

Some symptoms unique to leukemia are pale skin, red spots on the skin (called petechiae) and frequent infections.

Symptoms from lymphoma may include fevers, shortness of breath, coughing and itchy skin. More aggressive symptoms of lymphoma, referred to as B symptoms, may also include weight loss and night sweats.

Treatment

Treatment depends on the type of cancer and its stage. The most common treatments for leukemia and lymphoma are:

  • Chemotherapy, which uses drugs to kill cancer cells
  • Chemotherapy paired with radiation therapy, which uses high-energy radiation to shrink tumors by killing cancer cells
  • Stem cell transplants, which help grow new bone marrow by replacing diseased bone marrow with healthy stem cells
  • Targeted therapy, which uses drugs designed to seek out features unique to specific cancer cells or those that influence their behavior
  • Immunotherapy, which involves a drug, chosen based on the type and stage of cancer, to help the patient’s immune system recognize and destroy cancer cells

The treatment options for lymphoma also depend on its stage. For Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer cells are easier to treat when they’re limited to the lymph nodes in the early stages of the disease. Early treatment may include immunotherapy. Treatment may get more aggressive as the cancer progresses. Treatment specific to non-Hodgkin lymphoma is anti-CD19 CAR T-cell therapy, which targets cancerous T-cells.

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