Major Differences Between Leukemia and Lymphoma

Leukemia and lymphoma are known as blood-related cancers, but they are two different conditions that, in some cases, develop with similar symptoms. Leukemia begins in the bone marrow, and affects cells and systems that create blood and bone marrow. There are four main types of leukemia, with 11 possible types in all.

Lymphomas develop in the lymphatic system, the body's network of lymph fluid, vessels, and organs that are part of your immune system. The two types are Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

This article explains leukemia and lymphoma symptoms and similarities, as well as their differences. It offers information on how often these cancers occur, who is most at risk, and how improved treatments have changed the outlook for people with some types of leukemia and lymphoma.

Key differences between Leukemia and Lymphoma.

Verywell / Jessica Olah

Differences Between Leukemias and Lymphomas

Leukemias and lymphomas are often grouped together due to their definition as blood-related cancers. This is in contrast to cancers with solid tumors, such as breast cancer or lung cancer.

There are differences between the two based on the kind of cells where the cancer begins, and the features that lead to the way leukemia and lymphoma are defined. But it's important to remember that there are similarities among the types of blood cancers and exceptions to the rule.

Sometimes a symptom or characteristic of leukemia is more common in one type of lymphoma than it is in some leukemias, and vice versa.

For example, leukemia is the most common childhood cancer while lymphomas typically are seen as affecting older adults. Yet many types of leukemia are more common in older adults, while some types of lymphoma, such as Hodgkin lymphoma, are frequently found in young people.

Leukemia in Children

Leukemia accounts for 30% of all cancers that occur during childhood. The overwhelming majority of these leukemia diagnoses, at 80%, are due to acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Knowing the similarities and differences will help you to sort through the different types of lymphoma and leukemia.

Different Definitions

Leukemia and lymphoma conditions can seem confusing, in part, because researchers, as well as clinicians who treat people with blood cancers, know much more about the diseases than when they were first identified in the 1800s.

What Is Leukemia?

Leukemia is defined as a progressive, malignant (spreading) cancer that affects the blood-forming organs, of which there are several involved. The cancer changes the growth and development of leukocytes (white blood cells), and the stem cells from which they develop.

Among these organs are:

  • Bone marrow. In adults, all red blood cells and most of the granulocytes (a type of white blood cell) are produced in the bone marrow.
  • Thymus and spleen. Developed white blood cells migrate to these organs of the lymphatic system. The thymus is in your chest, behind the breastbone. The spleen is in the upper left quadrant of your abdomen.
  • Lymph nodes. These nodes are clustered throughout the body to filter the lymphatic fluid.

All of these tissues play a vital role in the development and maturation of the lymphocytes, with some differences between B lymphocytes (B cells) and T lymphocytes (T cells). Special tissues in these organs are important for the maturation of monocytes, a specific type of white blood cell.

What Is Lymphoma?

Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphoid tissue, which includes both cells and organs. It affects the same organs of the lymphatic system (thymus, bone marrow, lymph nodes, spleen).

But it also can affect other lymphoid tissue organs important to the immune system, including:

Lymphoma also affects white blood cells, with lymphocytes being the most common cell type found in lymphoid tissue.

Two Key Factors

One key factor in diagnosis involves whether high numbers of white blood cells are circulating in the bloodstream. This excess of white blood cells in the peripheral bloodstream is more typical of leukemia.

Early involvement of the bone marrow also is more typical of leukemia.

Primary Extranodal Lymphoma

Sometimes, lymphoma can first develop outside of the typical lymph node sites. These primary extranodal lymphomas can arise from the organs where lymphoid tissue is found, such as the spleen, as well as in the thyroid gland, salivary glands, tissue around the eyes, and other sites. This is more common with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Differing Symptoms

Leukemia and lymphoma are not diagnosed based on symptoms alone; many symptoms overlap or are not specific to either disease, while some other symptoms may be more characteristic of one disease or the other.

Lymphoma Symptoms

Symptoms of lymphoma vary and may include painless swelling of lymph nodes. These lymph nodes may be visible at sites in your body where lymph nodes are located, including:

The swelling also may be seen on imaging studies at sites like the mediastinum in your chest, or in retroperitoneal nodes, towards your back behind the abdominal ogans. Other symptoms may include:

Leukemia Symptoms

The most common types of leukemia can produce symptoms such as bone and joint pain. Other symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue and general weakness
  • Pale skin due to low levels of red blood cells, known as anemia
  • Easy bleeding or bruising due to a low levels of platelets, or thrombocytopenia
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Swollen lymph nodes of the spleen and liver
leukemia symptoms
Illustration by Verywell

People with lymphomas may have symptoms referred to as B symptoms, which often indicate a more aggressive or faster-growing cancer.

B symptoms of lymphoma include fevers, unintentional weight loss, and drenching night sweats.

Cell Types in Leukemia and Lymphoma

Describing the different types of cells and origin of cancers between leukemias and lymphomas is easiest by describing a few specific types of these diseases.

Types of Leukemia

There are four basic types of leukemia.

Here are the first two:

1. Acute myeloid leukemia, or AML

2. Chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML

As these names suggest, two types of leukemia are “myeloid,” which means “of or like the bone marrow,” which makes sense, since bone marrow is the body’s factory for making white blood cells. But the word myeloid also refers to the group of cells that differentiate, or grow up, from one common ancestor—a myeloid progenitor cell. So, because of that ‘myeloid’ in the name, we are referring to cells of the blood-forming tissues that hail from the same part of the family tree of white blood cells.

Now look at the second two leukemia types:

3. Acute lymphocytic leukemia, or ALL

4. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL

Now, with ALL and CLL, it may seem like we are in a bit of trouble with our definitions.

The second two kinds of leukemia derive from lymphocyte lineage.

Technically, ALL and CLL should be lymphomas, then, right?—they are lymphocytic—and lymphocytes are a cell type that is a part of the lymphoid tissue. Well, not quite. Though the lymphocytes are key cells in lymphoid tissue, they start out in the bone marrow and migrate to the lymphoid tissue. Additionally, it’s now time to go back to that nagging clause in the definition of leukemia: “…characterized by distorted proliferation and development of leukocytes and their precursors in the blood and bone marrow.”

The proliferation, or growth and multiplication, of white blood cells and their precursors in the bone marrow—and presence in the blood—is a part of the leukemia definition that serves to distinguish many leukemias from many lymphomas.

Types of Lymphoma

Here are the two basic types of lymphoma:

1. Hodgkin lymphoma, or HL

2. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, or NHL

A large variety of cancers derive from lymphocytes or their precursors—these lymphoma cells will usually not appear in the peripheral blood, which means that they can’t be properly called leukemias.

**There are exceptions. Also, some malignancies have features characteristic of both leukemia and lymphoma.

Differences in Incidence

There are differences in the incidence, or how often leukemias and lymphomas occur, as well. Overall, more people develop lymphomas than leukemias.

Here are the American Cancer Society’s estimates for new cases in 2021 broken down by subtypes:

Lymphoma:

  • 81,560 non-Hodgkin lymphoma
  • 8,830 Hodgkin lymphoma

Leukemia:

  • 19,940 acute myeloid leukemia
  • 9,110 chronic myeloid leukemia
  • 5,690 acute lymphocytic leukemia
  • 21,250 chronic lymphocytic leukemia

Differences in Age at Diagnosis

Leukemia is the most common childhood cancer, accounting for around one-third of all cancers in children. The second most common group of childhood cancers is malignancies of the central nervous system, including brain tumors. By comparison, lymphomas comprise only 10 percent of childhood cancers.

In contrast, many lymphomas are more common in people over the age of 55.

There is overlap, for example, as some chronic leukemias are much more common in older people, whereas Hodgkin lymphoma has its first peak in incidence between the ages of 15 and 40.

Bottom Line

Both leukemias and lymphomas are considered "blood-related" cancers and involve cells that play an important role in immune function. There are general differences between the two outlined above, yet when broken down by specific leukemias and lymphomas there is much overlap.

Perhaps a greater difference is to distinguish these blood-related cancers and "solid tumors." In general, treatments which increase life expectancy have progressed further for those with advanced leukemias and lymphomas than for those with advanced solid tumors. For example, the discovery of the targeted therapy Gleevec (imatinib) has changed chronic myeloid leukemia from being an almost universally fatal disease to a condition we can now often treat as a chronic disease, controlling the disease for an indefinite period of time. Acute lymphocytic leukemia was at one time usually rapidly fatal, yet around 90 percent of children with this disease can now be cured. For those with Hodgkin lymphoma, the life expectancy has improved dramatically as well. This disease, which had a 10 percent 5-year survival rate a century ago, now has a 5-year survival rate of over 90 percent for early stage and well over 50 percent for stage 4 disease.

In contrast, many stage 4 solid tumors, such as breast cancer, lung cancer, and pancreatic cancer are not curable and are almost always fatal over time. That said, some approaches to treatment, such as targeted therapies and ​immunotherapy offer hope that those with solid tumors will eventually follow the advances in survival that many people with blood-related cancers now realize.

15 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  5. American Society of Hematology. Lymphoma.

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Additional Reading

By Tom Iarocci, MD
Tom Iarocci, MD, is a medical writer with clinical and research experience in hematology and oncology.