Multiple Myeloma, Lymphoma, and Leukemia

Medically Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on September 20, 2023
3 min read

Multiple myeloma, lymphoma, and leukemia are all types of cancer that start in your blood cells. Doctors often call them blood cancers.

While these three types of cancer are alike in some ways, they affect different parts of your body. Some are harder to treat than others.

This is where your body makes your blood cells. Each of these cancers affects how your body makes different types of white blood cells, which help your body fight disease. When you’re healthy, white blood cells look for viruses or bacteria in your body that could cause an infection. They find them and knock them out so you don’t get sick.

When you get blood cancer, your body starts to make too much of an abnormal kind of blood cell. That means you don’t have enough normal white blood cells to keep you healthy.

Multiple myeloma hits your plasma cells. These white blood cells make antibodies to fight disease. Myeloma cancer cells take over, and your body can’t fight infections. The cancer cells make abnormal antibodies that settle in your blood and pee. They can eat away at bone or damage your kidneys.

Lymphoma usually starts in your lymph nodes or other parts of your lymphatic system. These small glands in your armpits, groin, and neck store immune cells called lymphocytes. They’re a white blood cell that fights infections. When the cancer cells build up in your lymph nodes, your immune system starts to break down.

Leukemia typically starts in your blood and bone marrow. You make so many white blood cells that you can’t fight infections. Your marrow can’t make enough of other vital blood cells: red blood cells and platelets.

Blood cancer signs can vary and may be hard to spot. But multiple myeloma, lymphoma, and leukemia do have some similar symptoms.

At first, multiple myeloma may not have symptoms. As the cancer grows, you might notice:

Lymphoma can also make you tired. You may lose weight without trying. Your lymph nodes might swell or bulge. You could also notice:

Leukemia symptoms are different for every person. At first, you may think you have the flu.

Some symptoms mirror those of other types of blood cancer. You may feel fatigued and weak. You might lose weight.

Like multiple myeloma, leukemia can make your bones feel tender or painful. You might also have lymphoma-like symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes, fevers, chills, and night sweats.

Some signs only apply to leukemia:

If you’ve had one kind of blood cancer, you could be at risk of another kind later on. This is called a second cancer.

If you have non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, you’re more likely to get head and neck cancers. You could also get leukemia.

If you’ve had leukemia, there’s a greater chance you could get lymphoma later on. If you’ve had multiple myeloma, you have higher odds of leukemia later on.

To lower your chance of a second blood cancer, don’t smoke or use any tobacco products. Tobacco of any kind boosts the risk of cancer. You can also take these steps:

  • Get to and stay at a healthy weight.
  • Get exercise.
  • Eat healthy foods -- more veggies and less meat.
  • Limit alcohol to one drink per day for women and two a day for men.