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What’s the difference between leukemia and lymphoma?

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These 2 cancers affect your blood in different ways. Learn about symptoms and treatments here.
Written by Rosemary Black
Updated on February 24, 2022

Leukemia and lymphoma are easy to mix up. They’re both blood cancers, and they both involve white blood cells.

But while these diseases have a lot in common, key differences set them apart. If you or someone you love is facing leukemia or lymphoma, we have answers to some of your most common questions.

(And don’t forget: If you need prescription medication for any condition, Optum Perks may be able to save you money.)

What’s the biggest difference between leukemia and lymphoma?

Here’s the first thing to know: “Leukemia and lymphoma are extremely broad categories,” says Scott Fleischauer, MD. He’s an assistant professor at TCU School of Medicine and specializes in medical oncology and hematology at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital in Arlington. “Both terms are used collectively to refer to several different diseases with very different prognoses and treatments.”

The 2 types of cancer are distinguished by where they live in the body. Leukemia is a cancer of blood cells. You can think of it as a type of liquid cancer that moves through your veins, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

With leukemia, your body produces abnormal white blood cells that don’t work the way they’re supposed to. As these cells grow in number, they can crowd out the healthy white cells your body relies on to fight disease. This makes you more likely to get an infection.

The abnormal cells created by leukemia can also hurt your ability to make oxygen-carrying red blood cells. That can make you feel tired or weak.

Lymphoma, on the other hand, goes after your lymphatic system, which carries fluid to lymph nodes to be filtered. (Your lymphatic system helps keep your immune system strong.) Unlike leukemia, lymphoma begins inside a specific type of white blood cell called a lymphocyte. As these cells grow, they can form tumors in your lymph nodes.

Leukemia was responsible for just over 3% of all new cancer cases in 2021, according to the National Cancer Institute. There are 2 main types of lymphoma: Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin, and together they were responsible for nearly 5% of all new cancer cases last year.

What are the symptoms of leukemia and lymphoma?

With leukemia and lymphoma, you may have anemia, fatigue, fever, night sweats and weight loss. And your blood count may be off. It often goes down, but not always.

“They can also be accompanied by a high white count consisting of the malignant cells,” says Dr. Fleischauer.

That said, there are symptoms unique to each. Leukemia is more likely to lead to bleeding and bruising, says Dr. Fleischauer. You might experience frequent nosebleeds or bone pain and tenderness, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Related reading: Your questions about cancer-related pain, answered.

With lymphoma, you’re more likely to have swollen lymph nodes. This can happen in the neck, armpits or groin. (Some types of leukemia can also cause the lymph nodes to swell, so you’ll need to see a doctor for a diagnosis.)

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma — which has about 70 types — accounts for about 90% of all lymphoma cases, says Daniel O. Persky, MD. He’s a professor of medicine and associate director of clinical investigations with the University of Arizona Cancer Center. It can cause a swollen abdomen, cough or shortness of breath. You may also experience chest pain or pressure.

(Chest pain could also be caused by heart problems or anxiety.)

How are leukemia and lymphoma treated?

With some cases of lymphoma and leukemia, you may not need to do anything dramatic. “Some can be watched for a decade or more without treatment,” Dr. Fleischauer says.

But others need action. “Acute leukemias typically require immediate hospitalization, high doses of chemotherapy for months and sometimes a stem cell transplant,” he says.

“Because leukemia is a cancer of blood cells that travel all over the body, surgery to remove them does not help,” Dr. Persky says. “So treatment is with drugs that go everywhere in the body and kill the cells wherever they go.”

With non-Hodgkin lymphoma, surgery may be possible, but radiation therapy is generally preferred, according to the American Cancer Society. Your doctor may also recommend immunotherapy, which helps your immune system fight cancer, often with fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy

For Hodgkin lymphoma, doctors often use a medication regimen called ABVD. The acronym stands for 4 chemotherapy medications: Adriamycin®, bleomycin, vinblastine and dacarbazine.

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What are the survival rates for leukemia and lymphoma?

Many things affect survival rates. But in general, the earlier you catch the disease, the better your outlook will be. With treatment, the odds are in your favor.

Your journey (or that of your loved one) is unique. But according to the National Cancer Institute, the 5-year survival rates are as follows:

  • Leukemia: 65%
  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma: 73%
  • Hodgkin lymphoma: 88%

Can you prevent leukemia or lymphoma?

Early detection is the best prevention.

The risk of getting the diseases goes up slightly if other people in your family have had them, says Dr. Fleischauer. But the genetic connection is far from conclusive. “Most cases of both leukemias and lymphomas occur randomly,” he says.

Other risk factors for leukemia include smoking cigarettes and exposure to industrial chemicals such as benzene, according to the Mayo Clinic. And having HIV or a past Epstein-Barr infection could increase your risk of lymphoma. But again, the associations are not fully understood, says Dr. Fleischauer.

Because there isn’t a way to completely prevent these diseases, the best thing you can do is watch for changes in your health. Be sure to schedule an appointment with your doctor if anything is off.

And in the meantime, don’t let the cost of medication keep you from filling your prescriptions. Download the free Optum Perks discount card to see if we can get you a better price at the pharmacy.

Additional sources
Leukemia stats:
National Cancer Institute
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma stats: National Cancer Institute
Hodgkin lymphoma stats: National Cancer Institute
Differences between lymphoma and leukemia: The Cleveland Clinic (2016). “Are Leukemia and Lymphoma the Same Thing?
Surgery for Lymphoma: American Cancer Society
Leukemia risk factors: The Mayo Clinic
Hodgkin lymphoma risk factors: The Mayo Clinic
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma risk factors: The Mayo Clinic