Leukemia vs Lymphoma – Causes, Symptoms, Differences

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood and the bone marrow – the sponge-like tissue in the center of most bones. It causes the human body to create abnormally large amounts of damaged white blood cells, that are ineffective in their normal role as infection fighters.


This condition is usually put into two categories: chronic or acute.

  • the chronic type occurs when there are some immature cells, however, others are normal and can function healthily. This actually means that it gets bad, but more slowly.
  • the acute type occurs when most of the abnormal blood cells stay immature and can’t carry out their usual functions. This means that it can get bad very fast.

About 75 percent of leukemias among teens and children are ALL (acute lymphocytic leukemia). Most of the remaining patients are AML (acute myelogenous leukemia).

In the present day, it is the 6th most common in women and the 5th most frequent cause of cancer deaths in men, with more than 25,000 people per year are expected to die from this type of cancer. The 5-year survival rate for people with AML is around 27 percent.

However, since 1960, in European Union, Japan, and the United States, mortality from this cancer has been declining due to progressive and continuous therapeutic advancements, especially for ALL in childhood and young age.


The precise causes of this condition are not entirely known. Nevertheless, a few factors have been identified that may increase the risk, including:

  • genetic disorders, like – Down syndrome;
  • smoking tobacco especially increases the risk of AML. Moreover, smoking cigarettes has been linked to cancers of the mouth, lungs, larynx, and throat;
  • a family history of any type of leukemia;
  • exposure to chemicals (benzene) or high levels of radiation;
  • previous treatment for cancer with chemotherapy;
  • blood disorders, like – myelodysplastic syndrome;
  • infection with a virus called HTLV-1.


Common symptoms may include:

  • frequent or severe infections;
  • chills;
  • fever;
  • recurrent nosebleeds;
  • bone pain;
  • excessive sweating, particularly at night;
  • tiny red spots on the skin;
  • easy bleeding;
  • enlarged spleen;
  • enlarged liver;
  • swollen lymph nodes;
  • unexplained weight loss;
  • weakness;
  • persistent fatigue.


The treatment depends on the type of blood cell affected and may include:

  • stem cell transplantation;
  • targeted therapy;
  • interferon therapy;
  • chemotherapy (drugs for use in AML include – Bortezomib, Tipifarnib, Laromustine, and Sapacitabine);
  • radiation therapy;
  • surgery.


Tisagenlecleucel was the first CAR T therapy (T cells from a person with this condition are removed, genetically engineered, and then transferred back to the person) to be approved for sufferers with ALL.


It is a cancer of the lymphatic system, that is part of the human body‘s germ-fighting network. The lymphatic system includes the spleen, lymph nodes, bone marrow, and thymus gland.

  • Lymph nodes – small masses of tissue store white blood cells. They are located in the underarms, neck, abdomen, chest, groin, and pelvis. Their main function is to remove bacteria and other substances from the lymph.
  • Lymph vessels – thin tubes which transport lymph from different parts of the human body to the bloodstream.
  • Lymph – clear fluid that transports white blood cells through the lymph system. They help fight infection.


There are two main types – non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) and Hodgkin lymphoma (HL). The primary difference is which subset of lymphocytes are involved.

This condition can happen at any age, however, it is one of the most frequent causes of cancer in young adults aged 15 to 24 years and children.

In the US, every year more than 66,769 people are diagnosed with NHL and about 21,000 people die from it. Also, around 9,000 people are diagnosed with HL and more than 1,000 people die from it.

Worldwide, about 63,000 people are diagnosed with HL per year. Of those, 40 percent are female and 60 percent are male patients. From these, nearly 25,000 patients die every year.


Risk factors include:

  • a parent having this condition;
  • previous treatment with chemotherapy drugs or radiotherapy;
  • certain infections;
  • being very obese or overweight;
  • smoking tobacco;
  • using hair dye;
  • drugs that suppress the immune system, especially medicine used after you’ve had an organ transplant;
  • having an immune system disease, like – Sjögren’s syndrome (characterized by dryness of the eyes and mouth), rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or celiac disease;
  • certain jobs where people use chemicals.


Common symptoms may include:

  • itchy skin;
  • swelling of the lymph nodes in the upper chest, underarm, groin, or abdomen;
  • chest pain;
  • difficulty breathing;
  • fever;
  • unexplained weight loss;
  • sweating;
  • fatigue;
  • weakness.


As cancerous lymphocytes spread beyond the lymphatic system, the human body loses its capacity to fight infection. Moreover, if the lymphoma involves lymphatic tissue within the abdomen, fluid may build up causing swelling near the intestines as well as indigestion and diarrhea.

In addition, most patients with NHL will develop iron anemia due to the loss of red blood cells. Iron anemia symptoms include:

  • weakness;
  • extreme fatigue;
  • shortness of breath;
  • pale skin;
  • cold hands and feet;
  • fast heartbeat;
  • chest pain;
  • lightheadedness;
  • headaches;
  • brittle nails;
  • soreness of the tongue.


Depending on the stage and type of lymphoma, treatment can include:

  • radiation therapy (for individuals with NHL, radiation is typically confined to the lymph nodes);
  • chemotherapy;
  • targeted therapy;
  • stem cell transplant;
  • biological therapy.


A 2002 study concluded that people who increased their exercise after a diagnosis of this serious condition had better survival rates than people who remained less physically active. In addition, scientists found that sufferers who exercised more before a diagnosis survived longer when they developed this condition than sedentary people.

Bottom Line – Leukemia vs Lymphoma

These conditions are completely different but have similar symptoms. For instance, leukemia, also known as blood cancer, is a cancer of blood cells with symptoms including:

  • feeling weak or tired;
  • frequent infections;
  • loss of appetite;
  • weight loss;
  • discomfort in the abdomen;
  • bleeding easily;
  • night sweats;
  • swollen lymph nodes;
  • pain in the joints.

Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system. It contains specialized white blood cells which help protect the human body from disease and infection. Common symptoms include:

  • enlarged spleen or liver;
  • sweating;
  • fatigue;
  • weight loss;
  • fever;
  • enlarged lymph nodes.

Images credit – Shutterstock & Getty

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