Myths About Leukemia and Lymphoma

by Jane Ashley

Leukemia — a type of cancer that affects blood and bone marrow.

Survival Rates Continue To Rise

Lymphoma — a cancer that begins in infection-fighting cells of the immune system, called lymphocytes.

There are many myths and misconceptions about leukemia and lymphoma. If we are diagnosed with either of these blood cancers, we might be confused because of “things” we’ve heard. We’re going to look at some common misconceptions about leukemia and lymphoma and help to set the record straight.

MYTH: Leukemia only occurs in children; lymphomas only occur in older adults.

FACT: Leukemia is the most common cancer in children, occurring in about 28 percent of all childhood cancer cases. Children account for about 3,500 leukemia cases annually in the U.S. According to the American Cancer Society, about 60,500 adults in the U.S. will be diagnosed with leukemia in 2020.

Leukemia Only Occurs In Children

Lymphomas occur in both children, young adults, and older adults. While it is true that all blood cancers occur more frequently in older adults, both Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma occur in children, teenagers, young and middle-aged adults and people over 65. Lymphomas occur in about 800 children annually. About 8,400 adults annually are diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Over 77,000 adults get the diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma each year.

MYTH: There’s only one kind of leukemia and lymphoma.

FACT: Hematologists categorize leukemia by how rapidly it progresses (chronic or acute) and by which blood cells it affects (lymphocytic or myelogenous). There are four major types of leukemia:

• Acute lymphocytic (ALL)
• Acute myelogenous (AML)
• Chronic lymphocytic (CLL)
• Chronic myelogenous (CML)

Myth Theres Only One Kind

Hairy cell leukemia (HCL) is a rare subtype of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).

Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) affect about 13,000 people annually. This syndrome is related to blood cancers; it affects the production of red blood cells. It used to be called preleukemia because some MDS patients developed leukemia. However, most MDS patients don’t develop leukemia.

MYTH: Leukemia and lymphoma symptoms are very explicit.

FACT: Symptoms for leukemia and both types of lymphoma are usually vague. Leukemia symptoms include:

• Bruising and/or bleeding
• Fatigue
• Fever
• Night sweats
• Swollen lymph nodes
• Unintended weight loss

Lymphoma patients experience the above symptoms, along with a few other symptoms:
• Abdominal swelling or pain
• Cough or other respiratory symptoms, similar to a cold
• Itchy skin

Symptoms Are Vague

If you or someone you love experience several of these symptoms for 10 – 14 days, see your healthcare professional.

MYTH: All patients need immediate treatment.

FACT: Some CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia) patients are diagnosed through routine blood work done as part of their annual physical exam. They may not have any symptoms. Their leukemia was discovered at an early stage before any symptoms developed. For these patients, a “watch and wait with active surveillance” is recommended. It may take several years before symptoms like increased fatigue, night sweats, or swollen lymph nodes develop.

Likewise, some patients with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma aren’t treated immediately. Non-symptomatic lymphoma is often called “indolent” lymphoma. The patient remains under the care of a hematologist or oncologist who monitors the patient regularly for signs that their lymphoma is becoming more active.

MYTH: Survival rates are low.

FACT: Advances in treatments have resulted in effective therapies for leukemias and lymphomas. Survival rates are rising for all types of leukemia and lymphomas.

According to the National Institute of Health, five-year survival rates for leukemia are:
• ALL = 68.60%
• AML = 28.30%
• CLL = 85.10%
• CML = 69.20%

Overall survival for all people diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma is 87%. Amazingly, for patients with Stage IV disease, the 5-year survival rate is just under 73%.

For non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients, 5-year survival rates vary a little bit by sex:
• Women = 72%
• Men = 69%

Almost 62% of patients diagnosed with Stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survive over 5 years.

The myth of low survival rates is just that — a myth. Survival rates have been improving since the 1990s.

The Bottom Line

Myths, old wives tales, and “fake” news can put us in an emotional spin when we are first diagnosed or in the midst of treatment. Trust your medical team’s information. Research using only trusted healthcare websites like NCCN.org, the American Cancer Society or the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Other excellent cancer centers’ sites, including MD Anderson, Mayo, and Memorial Sloan Kettering, are also excellent sources of information.

Related Articles

Sorting Through The Confusion Over Leukemia Types

Living With Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)

Understanding the Difference Between Hodgkin's and Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma

Living With Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma (NHL)

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