Cancer can affect any part of the body, including the blood. Leukaemia and lymphoma are both forms of blood cancer. The main difference is that leukaemia affects the blood and bone marrow, while lymphomas tend to affect the lymph nodes.

Though there are some similarities between the two types of cancer, their causes and origins, symptoms, treatment, and survival rate are different.

In this article, we take a comprehensive look at the similarities and differences between leukaemia and lymphoma.

What are Leukaemia and Lymphoma?

Leukaemia and lymphoma are two types of cancer that affect the blood. Both cancers typically affect the white blood cells.


Leukaemia cells cause the white blood cells to multiply rapidly.
Image credit: Paulo Henrique Orlandi Mourao, (2018, April 30).

Leukaemia occurs when the bone marrow produces too many abnormal white blood cells. It is typically a slow-growing cancer, though there are cases where it progresses faster.

If a person has leukaemia, their abnormal white blood cells do not die off in a normal cycle. Instead, the white blood cells multiply rapidly, eventually leaving less room for red blood cells required to carry oxygen through the body.

There are four main types of leukaemia, classified according to their rate of growth and where the cancer originated in the body.

The types of leukaemia include:


Lymphoma starts in the immune system and affects the lymph nodes and lymphocytes, which are a type of white blood cell. There are two main types of lymphocyte, B cells and T cells.

The two main types of lymphoma are:

  1. Hodgkin Lymphoma, which involves a specific type of abnormal B cell called a Reed-Sterberg cell. This type is less common.
  2. Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, which can start in either B cells or T cells.

These types are based on the origin of the cancer cell and how quickly or aggressively they progress.

The type of lymphoma a person has will affect their symptoms as well as their treatment options.


Lymphoma is slightly more prevalent than leukaemia. Research estimates that there will be 60,300 new cases of leukaemia and 83,180 new cases of lymphoma in 2018.

This report also states that both leukaemia and lymphoma are more common in males than females.

Lymphoma is estimated to have a higher survival rate than leukaemia. The estimated death rates for 2018 are 24,370 for leukaemia and 20,960 for lymphoma.


Enlarged or swollen lymph nodes are one of the primary symptoms of leukaemia.

Leukaemia is often a slow-moving or chronic condition. Depending on which type of leukaemia a person has, symptoms may vary and may not be immediately apparent.

Symptoms of leukaemia include:

  • enlarged lymph nodes
  • shortness of breath
  • feeling tired
  • fever
  • bleeding from nose or gums
  • feeling weak, dizzy, or lightheaded
  • chronic infections or infections that do not heal
  • easily bruised skin
  • loss of appetite
  • swelling in the abdomen
  • unintended weight loss
  • rust-coloured spots in the skin
  • bone pain or tenderness
  • excessive sweating, especially at night

By comparison, the symptoms of lymphoma vary depending on the type. Hodgkin lymphoma symptoms can include:

  • a lump under the skin, typically in the groin, neck, or armpit
  • fever
  • unintentional weight loss
  • fatigue
  • drenching night sweats
  • loss of appetite
  • coughing or trouble breathing
  • severe itching
  • Symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma include:
  • a swollen abdomen
  • feeling full with a small amount of food
  • fever
  • enlarged lymph nodes
  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath
  • cough
  • chest pressure and pain
  • weight loss
  • sweating and chills

Causes and Origins

In both conditions, leukaemia and lymphoma are a result of problems with the body’s white blood cells.

Leukaemia occurs when the bone marrow produces too many white blood cells. These white blood cells do not die off in a normal cycle. Instead, they keep dividing and eventually push out other healthy blood cells.

In other cases, leukaemia starts in the lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are responsible for helping the immune system fight infections. Similarly, lymphoma typically starts in the lymph nodes or other lymphatic tissues.

Lymph nodes are all connected to each other. Hodgkin’s lymphoma spreads from one lymph node to the next.

If a person has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the cancer may spread sporadically, with some types being more aggressive than others.

In either type, the cancer can also spread to the bone marrow, lungs, or liver.

Risk Factors

Leukaemia and lymphoma have different risk factors.

Chronic leukaemia is common in adults. By contrast, children are more likely to be diagnosed with acute leukaemia. In fact, acute leukaemia is the most common type of cancer in children.

Although anyone could develop leukaemia, some of the risk factors include:

  • genetic disorders
  • family history
  • exposure to certain types of chemicals
  • previous radiation or chemotherapy
  • smoking

Lymphoma can occur at any age. Hodgkin’s lymphoma typically occurs between the ages of 15 and 40 or after 50. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma can occur at nearly any age but it most common among older adults.

Hodgkin’s lymphoma risk factors include:

  • family history
  • weakened immune system
  • previous infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection
  • HIV infection

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma risk factors include:

  • weakened immune system
  • exposure to some chemicals
  • chronic Helicobacter pylori infection
  • previous radiation or chemotherapy
  • autoimmune diseases


Leukaemia and lymphoma are diagnosed differently but both require recording a person’s medical history and doing a physical exam.

To diagnosis leukaemia, a doctor will do a blood test to look for abnormal blood counts. They may also perform a bone marrow biopsy.

A bone marrow biopsy does not usually require a hospital stay. A doctor will apply local anaesthesia before taking a sample. In some cases, a doctor may order chromosome testing or imaging tests, such as X-rays or computed tomography (CT) scans.

If a doctor suspects that a person has lymphoma, they may take a biopsy from the tissue that appears to be affected. This procedure may require general anaesthesia, but a doctor may be able to use a local anaesthesia.


Leukaemia is often treated with chemotherapy, which requires a long recovery time between sessions.

Leukaemia and lymphoma require different treatments. The type of leukaemia or lymphoma may also make a difference in how the cancer is treated.

Chronic leukaemia may not be immediately treated. Instead, a doctor may actively watch the progression of the cancer. This approach is most common with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. When treatment is administered, a doctor may use:

Hodgkin’s lymphoma is typically easier to treat that non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma before it spreads from the lymph nodes.

Treatment for both Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma can include:

  • radiation therapy
  • chemotherapy
  • drugs that prevent further growth of abnormal cells
  • targeted therapy
  • immunotherapy
  • high-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant
  • surgery (in rare cases)


A 5-year survival rate refers to how many people with a specific type of cancer are alive 5 years after diagnosis. Survival rates may vary by stage of the cancer at diagnosis.

According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate for all people diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma is 86 %. For non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, it is 70 %.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the 5-year survival rate for leukaemia was 61 % between 2008 and 2014.

Some types of leukaemia and lymphoma are slow-progressing cancers, which gives doctors a better chance at catching them in the earlier stages.

When cancer is caught in earlier stages, it is usually easier to treat. In addition to their overall health, early treatment can often improve a person’s outlook.

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