Leukemia, Lymphoma, Myeloma - What's the Difference?

Leukemia, Lymphoma, Myeloma - What's the Difference?

Last updated: April 2023

Blood cancer is a very broad term that describes multiple types of cancer. The common factor is that the cancer originates in blood cells and can spread throughout the body via the bloodstream or through the lymphatic system. White blood cells are the immune cells in our bodies that fight disease. Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body and remove carbon dioxide.

The different types of blood cancer are classified by the cell type that has become cancerous, where the cancer is located in the body, and how fast the cancer is progressing.1

The three most common major types of blood cancer are leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma.

What is leukemia?

Leukemia begins within the bone marrow, which is the soft spongy tissue inside our bones. In adults, bone marrow is found mainly in the flat bones, like the pelvis, skull, breastbone, ribs, shoulders, and vertebrae.

The bone marrow is where blood cells are made in a complex biological process called “hematopoiesis.” When a blood cell in the bone marrow changes to become cancerous, it can crowd out other cells and spread to the rest of the body via the bloodstream.

Major types of leukemia

There are four major sub-types of leukemia. Your specific diagnosis depends on how quickly the cancer grows and in which blood cell type it originates.2 Acute types of leukemia affect very young white blood cells and can progress rapidly. Chronic leukemias affect slightly more mature cells and progress more slowly. Lymphocytic leukemias affect white blood cells called lymphocytes, whereas myeloid leukemias affect cells that are destined to become any other type of blood cell.

What is lymphoma?

Lymphoma is a cancer that begins in the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. The lymphatic system is made up mainly of immune cells called lymphocytes. B-cells and T-cells are the main lymphocytes, and each has a specific function in protecting our bodies from disease.

Lymphoma originates in lymph tissues, which can be found in many parts of the body, including in the lymph nodes, thymus, tonsils, adenoids, spleen, lymphatic vessels, and parts of the digestive system.3 If you have been diagnosed with lymphoma, your specific symptoms will depend on where your tumor began.

Major types of lymphoma

There are two major sub-types of lymphoma. Your diagnosis depends on the type of cell where the cancer originated plus other characteristics of the tumor. Hodgkin lymphoma is characterized by the presence of Reed-Sternberg cells, which are named after the researchers who discovered them. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma does not have Reed-Sternberg cells.4

What is myeloma?

Myeloma is a blood cancer that begins in immune cells called plasma cells, which are most often found in bone marrow. Plasma cells are formed from B-cells when they are called on to fight an infection. When plasma cells become cancerous, they multiply and begin to crowd out healthy cells and produce abnormal antibodies called M proteins.5,6

Major types of myeloma

There are four major sub-types of myeloma. Diagnosis depends on how localized or spread out the cancer has become and where it originated. The most common form of myeloma is multiple myeloma. Over 90% of people with myeloma have multiple myeloma.6

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