Warning Signs of Blood and Lymph Cancers

Doctor examining a young girl

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The following warning signs and symptoms should be viewed as informational in that these are possible scenarios, but not specific checklists for diagnosing an individual with blood cancer.

In fact, there may be no symptoms at all, at first. In other cases, the symptoms are very non-specific and might be attributed to a lingering cold or a prolonged bout of not feeling 100 percent. Sometimes the only clue is an enlarged lymph node that doesn't even hurt, or a painless lump, while other presentations are more prominent.

Warning Signs of Lymphoma

Neither lymphoma nor leukemia is diagnosed based on the presence of symptoms, alone. And the appearance of symptoms may differ depending on the type of leukemia or lymphoma as well as whether it's chronic or acute.

Warning Signs of Leukemia

  • Feeling weak, tired, or generally unwell
  • Frequent infections
  • Unexplained fevers
  • Abnormal bruising or bleeding
  • Bone pain and joint pain

More on Fever

In the medical community, FUO stands for fever of unknown origin. Having FUO does not mean you have cancer. In fact, there are a huge number of noncancerous causes of FUO.

But as some people with leukemia or lymphoma can attest, a fever that wouldn’t go away—maybe together with fatigue and a lump—was how it all began for them. In FUO, the fever has to be prolonged, and there has to be a pretty extensive workup to rule out likely causes.

FUO is defined as “a fever of 38.3C (101F) or more lasting for at least three weeks for which no cause can be identified after three days of investigation in hospital or after three or more outpatient visits.” And this definition tends to get rid of some of the more common causes of fever that resolve within three weeks.

More on Swollen Lymph Nodes

Just as a fever doesn't always mean cancer, swollen lymph nodes are more typically due to something other than cancer. An infection, especially a viral infection such as the common cold, is the most common cause of swollen lymph nodes. Strep throat and mononucleosis also commonly produce swollen nodes. Both bacterial and viral infections can cause lymph nodes to swell, and it doesn’t have to be an upper respiratory infection—ear infections, skin, and wound infections, and tooth abscesses are all common infections leading to swollen lymph nodes.

Both leukemia and lymphoma may involve the lymph nodes. Lymphoma is more likely to begin in the lymph nodes, while leukemia is generally thought to begin with a single abnormal cell in the bone marrow.

Leukemia and Lymphoma: Similarities and Differences

  • Both lymphoma and leukemia are blood cancers.
  • Both blood cancers cain affect the immune system.
  • Leukemia and lymphoma both have many different subtypes.
  • Leukemia is a cancer of the white blood cells that tends to start in the bone marrow and spread to the blood and other structures.
  • Lymphoma is a cancer of the white blood cells that tend to start in the lymph tissue, in the lymph nodes, and may spread to other structures, including the bone marrow.

Types and Statistics

  • Leukemia and lymphoma account for the majority of blood cancers overall, but there is a third type—myeloma, or multiple myeloma, that also accounts for a good chunk of the pie, about 15 percent.
  • Leukemia is classified generally into acute (faster growing) and chronic (more slowly growing) forms; while, in lymphoma, the major categories are Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and these categories do not necessarily imply faster or slower growing malignancies.
  • Among children, leukemia is more common than lymphoma, but children and adults are both capable of developing either.
  • Almost all childhood leukemia is acute, rather than chronic, leukemia.
  • Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin types always refer to lymphomas (you will see both spellings—Hodgkin and Hodgkin’s—because there is a push remove the apostrophe-s, but this is not being adopted everywhere).
  • There are more than 70 types of lymphoma, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma types greatly outnumber the Hodgkin lymphoma types.
  • The most common non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, or DLBCL, followed by follicular lymphoma as the second most common non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
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