Cancer can be confusing and hard to understand. Sometimes we can’t picture what exactly is happening inside our own body, especially when it can affect any part. And if you mix in blood cancer, it can be even trickier to understand.
Some types of cancer have similarities and this is especially true of leukemia and lymphoma. Both are forms of blood cancer and both involve white blood cells, but the problems that each disease causes and the way they’re treated are very different.
“I would say leukemia and lymphoma are kind of related, like cousins,” explains hematologist Aaron Gerds, MD, MS. “The simplest way to think about it is that lymphomas are solid tumors made up of blood cells. This kind of cancer usually causes enlarged lymph nodes or solid masses. Leukemia, on the other hand, is seen in the bloodstream – it’s a liquid kind of cancer and it flows and is pumped around with the blood.”
If you’re still not sure you’ve got that, Dr. Gerds gives a more detailed breakdown of each:
What exactly is lymphoma?
Lymphoma is a cancer that specifically affects your lymphatic system. That’s the network of organs and tissues in your body that protects you against infection and gets rid of waste and toxins.
Lymphoma starts in lymphocytes, the types of white blood cells that are born in your bone marrow and circulate around in your blood until they mature and become part of your lymphatic system. Lymphocytes are part of your immune system. They’re meant to fight off bacteria and viruses, but sometimes they turn cancerous instead, growing out of control and not working properly.
There are two main types of lymphomas, Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
What exactly is leukemia?
Leukemia occurs when your body makes abnormal white blood cells that don’t work the way they should. Quick Greek lesson: The name of the disease comes from the Greek words for “white” (leukos) and “blood” (haima).