Leukemia & Lymphoma

An Overview of Leukemia and Lymphoma

Leukemia and lymphoma are both blood cancers that involve the white blood cells. They are also sometimes called "liquid tumors" or liquid cancers, to contrast them with common cancers that form solid tumors, such as colon cancer or breast cancer.

Together, leukemia and lymphoma account for the majority of blood cancers. Myeloma, also called multiple myeloma, is the third main type of blood cancer, and it accounts for about 15 percent of cases.

Symptoms of Leukemia and Lymphoma

The symptoms of leukemia and lymphoma can be very non-specific. There may be vague symptoms such as fatigue or unexplained fevers at first. Or, more pronounced acute blood cancer warning symptoms are also possible, which may include swollen lymph nodes that are more typical in lymphoma; or abnormal bruising, bleeding, or bone pain typical in some types of leukemia; and more general symptoms such as feeling very tired, weakness, weight loss, abdominal fullness, fever, and night sweats.

Several representative symptoms for each category are listed below:


  • feeling weak, tired, or generally unwell
  • frequent infections
  • unexplained fevers
  • abnormal bruising or bleeding
  • bone pain and joint pain


  • enlarged lymph nodes
  • fever
  • excessive sweating, especially at night
  • unexplained weight loss
  • unusual tiredness
  • abdominal discomfort and fullness when eating, due to an enlarged spleen

However, neither leukemia nor lymphoma is typically diagnosed initially based on symptoms alone.

Diagnosis of Leukemia and Lymphoma

Abnormal lab tests and imaging studies, taken together with symptoms, may suggest the possibility of leukemia or lymphoma, but the initial diagnosis usually requires obtaining a sample for testing.

Blood samples and biopsies—from lymph nodes as well as bone marrow and possibly from other sites—are taken and sent for dedicated laboratory analysis. Such tests not only establish or confirm the diagnosis, but they may also be used to determine the specific type of leukemia or lymphoma. This specific typing and classification guides treatment planning and helps to shape the prognosis.

Top Things To Know About Leukemia and Lymphoma

What’s the Difference Between Leukemia and Lymphoma?

One basic difference has to do with which of the body’s organs are most involved. Historically, blood cancers were defined as leukemias if the bulk of the disease was found in the blood; or lymphomas if the bulk of the disease was in the lymph nodes; or myelomas if the bulk of the disease was in the bones.

Most lymphomas get their start in the lymph nodes, while leukemias are thought to start from one abnormal stem cell within the bone marrow that does not stop dividing when a normal stem cell would.

Overall, there are more cases of lymphoma than leukemia diagnosed each year, with about 81,000 new lymphoma cases and 60,000 new leukemia cases.

There are also other important differences between leukemia and lymphoma, such as cell types, that require a deeper dive into medically complex territory to explain properly.

Who Gets Leukemia and Lymphoma?

Both adults and children may develop leukemia or lymphoma. Among infants and children, however, leukemia is far more common than lymphoma. In fact, leukemia is the most common malignancy of childhood.

The most common group of lymphomas, the non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas, may occur at any age, but about 50 percent of cases occur in people older than 66 years of age.

Impacted age groups and risk factors often depend on the type or subtype of blood cancer. Sometimes these trends shift with differing genes, ethnicity, and geography. For instance, statistics for the same cancer may differ, depending on if you are talking about Western Europe or China.

What’s the Prognosis?

Once you know the specific type of leukemia or lymphoma, all questions about available treatments and prognosis are best explored in concert with your doctor—and when it comes to prognosis, it’s worth remembering that people are not statistics.

Even individuals with the exact same type of leukemia or lymphoma can have very different outcomes.

Additionally, survival data has the potential to mislead—for instance, when better treatments have emerged since the time of analysis but are not yet reflected in survival statistics. Also, you may come across a survival statistic that is for your specific type of lymphoma or leukemia but not applicable to you, because the data has been cut for only certain stages of cancer, certain treatment regimens, or certain ages at diagnosis, etc.

In general, cure is possible for some types, but not for others. Also, in general, and for many different types of blood cancer, survival times have greatly improved since the 1960s. For some blood cancers, people may live with their disease for 20 years or more; for others, survival time is measured from the time of diagnosis to months, years, or in increments of five years.

What Causes Leukemia and Lymphoma?

In most cases, a precise cause of leukemia or lymphoma is not known.

However, scientists have made important discoveries about the genetics of cancer and the roles of certain genes in the development of these cancers. Risk factors such as age, family history, certain infections, exposures to cancer-causing substances, and radiation have been studied, but even if you have a risk factor and you later develop leukemia or lymphoma, in most cases it’s hard to say for sure whether that risk factor contributed to or caused your disease.

Main Types of Leukemia and Lymphoma


If you are reading about leukemia and lymphoma and you see “Hodgkin’s” or “non-Hodgkin’s,” it’s a pretty safe bet that the topic at hand is lymphoma, and not leukemia. That’s because these are the two basic categories of lymphoma:

  • Hodgkin lymphoma (HL)
  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

Hodgkin’s disease and Hodgkin’s lymphoma refer to the same thing—it’s always a lymphoma, and it happens to be a lymphoma that can usually be cured. And you’ll see differing spellings—with or without the apostrophe s—but it’s the same disease. There are just a handful of Hodgkin lymphoma types; while for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the list of types is quite lengthy.


Leukemia is generally classified into four main types. Within the main types, there are also subsets. The main types are as follow:

  • chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML)
  • acute myelogenous leukemia (AML)
  • chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
  • acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)

Leukemia types reflect whether the cancer is considered an acute or chronic leukemia as follows:

  • Acute leukemia usually progresses rapidly without treatment.
  • Chronic leukemia usually progress more slowly, but it can transform into aggressive, acute leukemia.

The leukemia is also called lymphoid or myeloid, depending on which of the normal types of blood-forming cells in the bone marrow became cancerous. Myeloid and myelogenous are sometimes used interchangeably; lymphoid, lymphoblastic, and lymphocytic are also used to refer to the same malignancy.

Top Things To Know About Leukemia

Leukemias are cancers of the blood-forming cells and tissues that start in the bone marrow. The type of leukemia depends partly on the type of blood-forming cell from which the leukemia developed—lymphoid or myeloid cells—and also on whether it is acute or chronic. Childhood leukemia is also sometimes considered separately from adult leukemia because of its different distribution of leukemia types and clinical impact.

Leukemia cells in the bone marrow produce white blood cells abnormally, sometimes with high numbers of immature or poorly functioning white cells out in the circulating blood.

Symptoms of Leukemia

Symptoms of leukemia are often non-specific, meaning they could be due to a number of different things. The most common types of leukemia can produce warning signs, including abnormal bleeding or bruising, bone and joint pain, fever, night sweats, fatigue, pale skin, weight loss, and other symptoms, including swollen lymph nodes, spleen, and liver. A person can have leukemia without having all of these symptoms, and some of them can depend on how much of the healthy bone marrow has been taken over by leukemia cells.

Leukemia Types and Statistics

  • ALL is the most common cancer in children.
  • CLL is the most common leukemia in adults in the United States.
  • AML is the most common type of acute leukemia in adults.
  • CML is a leukemia most commonly associated with something called the Philadelphia chromosome, with over 90 percent of CML patients having this genetic rearrangement.
  • Leukemia is the most common cancer of childhood, accounting for about one-third of all cancers in children, and almost all of childhood leukemia is acute leukemia.

Leukemia Survival Rates

  • Survival rates vary depending on the type of leukemia and can be challenging to interpret, even when you know what type of leukemia you have. Questions about a person’s prognosis are best explored in concert with a doctor, who can better tailor information to the individual.
  • In general, survival rates—overall, for all types of leukemia, combined—have improved greatly since 1960; however, individual survival rates vary widely and depend on specific leukemia types, subtypes, genetics of the cancer cells, and other individual patient factors.

Top Things to Know About Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a malignancy that involves white blood cells, as does leukemia; but in the case of lymphoma, the cancerous cells arise from the lymphocyte family of white blood cells. Normal, healthy lymphocytes can move in and out of lymph nodes, and they are part of the immune cell team that helps to fight infection. When a lymphoma develops, lymphoma cells can build up in the lymph nodes, bone marrow, spleen, and other parts of the body. Though lymphomas typically begin in the lymph nodes, they can arise virtually anywhere.

Symptoms of Lymphoma

Like leukemia, lymphoma may have no symptoms at first. In other cases, warning signs of lymphoma are more prominent and may include lymph node swelling, weight loss, fever, excessive sweating at night, itchiness over the entire body, loss of appetite, weakness, and sometimes breathlessness. When signs and symptoms are present, the most common one is lymph node enlargement, which may be felt as lumps in the neck, armpits, or groin. Sometimes an enlarged lymph node is the only symptom of lymphoma, at first.

Lymphoma Types and Statistics

The two main categories of lymphoma are HL and NHL. The more common of the two is NHL, which accounts for about 90 percent of all lymphoma cases.

  • The most common types of NHL are diffuse large B cell lymphoma (DLBCL), followed by follicular lymphoma (FL).
  • For HL, the most common type in developed countries is called nodular sclerosing HL, and it accounts for about 60 to 80 percent of HL cases.

Differences between Hodgkin and Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

  • HL was the first lymphoma to be discovered and is a smaller, less diverse set of lymphomas compared to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. NHL essentially includes a list of all the lymphomas that have been discovered ever since HL, to date.
  • Hodgkin lymphomas are more likely to arise in the upper portion of the body, in lymph nodes of the neck, underarms, or chest. NHL can arise in lymph nodes throughout the body.
  • Cancer staging is the process of finding out how much cancer is in the body and where it is located, and this staging plays a role in deciding on the best therapy. Staging for HL and NHL is somewhat different.
  • Age distributions for HL and NHL differ and can be a bit tricky: HL occurs in two peak age groups—one in the 80s, and the other in the 20s. So, although HL is a less common lymphoma than NHL, younger adults may seem to get more than their share of HL—and that’s because of that early peak in the 20s.

Indolent vs. Aggressive NHL

The clinical presentation of NHL varies a lot depending on the type of NHL, and that’s an understatement. Some NHLs are slowly growing, or indolent, with lymph node enlargement that flares up and settles down, over years. Other NHLs are highly aggressive, resulting in death within weeks if left untreated.

Lymphoma Survival Rates

The same cautions about survival statistics in leukemia apply to lymphoma.

Sometimes lymphomas with very different survival rates are put together and averaged out, with the combined survival being reported. For instance, NHL may carry very different prognoses, but organizations still report and track the overall five-year relative survival rate for people with NHL—that’s for all types combined—which was reported as about 69 percent based on people diagnosed between 2002 and 2008. Such statistics may be useful for organizations and committees, but they usually do not provide much in the way of useful information to patients.

In general, HL is considered one of the more treatable and curable forms of cancer when caught in its early stages, and HL is potentially curable even in later stages. However, there are also cases of HL that come back after treatment and/or are more difficult to treat. Within NHL, there are types that are considered more indolent or slow growing and ones that advance more quickly without treatment.

If You’re Recently Diagnosed With Leukemia or Lymphoma

For those dealing with a new or recent diagnosis of leukemia or lymphoma, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed and confused. Take one day at a time, and always ask questions. With patient conferences, blood cancer advocacy and survivorship groups, and even social media, there are many opportunities to connect with others who may have had similar experiences. Take advantage of these opportunities to connect and to learn from others.

Verywell aims to cover the basics of leukemia and lymphoma in plain English. When relevant, coverage also includes reference lists and links to good resources elsewhere on the Web for you to explore on your own. For instance, the patient resources from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) are designed to help patients talk with their physicians about the best treatment options for their disease.

Living With Leukemia or Lymphoma

Diagnosis is just the beginning of the cancer journey. While no one would “sign up” to have cancer, many cancer survivors say that the struggles and challenges, together with the immense amount of courage that they muster every day, all serve to transform their lives in a positive way and give them rare perspectives that they could not have imagined prior.

From what to expect with treatment, side effects, emotional care, dealing with fatigue and cancer recurrence, or celebrating another year of your bonus life, the cancer journey can have many ups and downs, so check back in frequently and at each new phase.

A Word From Verywell

If you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with leukemia or lymphoma, it is very normal to feel like you are alone, or to have your head spinning with racing thoughts, confusion, and at times, anger and fear.

Take heart in knowing that you are not alone. Understanding your disease and adapting to life after a diagnosis are both important in "taming the beast." Cancer is life-changing, but there is always hope.


American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures. http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@editorial/documents/document/acspc-044552.pdf.

Cheson BD, Fisher RI, Barrington SF et al. Recommendations for initial evaluation, staging and response assessment of Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma: the lugano classification. J Clin Oncol. 2014;32(27)3059-3068.

Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. http://www.lls.org/disease-information.

​NCCN Guidelines for Treatment of Cancer by Site. https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/f_guidelines.asp.

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