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Lipoma and Lymphoma: What’s the Difference?

Medically reviewed by Todd Gersten, M.D.
Written by Joanne Zamora
Posted on June 15, 2022

What Are Lipoma and Lymphoma? | How They Look and Feel | Symptoms | Causes | Treatment Options | Get Support

If you develop a lump under your skin, you may be unsure about its cause. Could it be a cyst, a swollen lymph node, or an allergic reaction? Is it lymphoma or a lipoma? Your doctor is the best person to ask, but it may be helpful to understand the difference between lipoma and lymphoma lumps.

When examining the skin’s surface, lipomas and lymphoma growths can appear to be the same. They both look like unusual growths (sometimes known as lesions) on the affected area. However, the two have some key differences — namely, their causes and treatments.

What Are Lipoma and Lymphoma?

A lipoma is a fatty tumor, or lump, beneath the skin. This growth is mostly made up of adipose tissue (fat cells) and can appear in almost any part of the body. Lipomas can appear in conditions such as liposarcoma (cancer of the fat cells). However, having a lipoma doesn’t always mean that you have cancer. In fact, lipomas are generally considered benign (noncancerous).

Lymphoma can also manifest with lumps under the skin. Unlike lipomas, however, these lumps develop as the result of swelling in the lymph nodes.

Lymph nodes are glands that belong to the lymphatic system. They often become enlarged when a person becomes sick with an infection (during a bad cold, for instance, you may feel a lump somewhere behind and below your ear). The lymph nodes may also swell as a result of lymphoma, producing rubbery, round lumps under the skin.

Lipomas are fatty tumors and lymphoma lumps are made up of cancerous cells.

What Do Lipomas and Lymphoma Lumps Look and Feel Like?

With lipomas, you will notice a soft mass on the affected area just under the surface of the skin. This mass is usually small (less than 2 inches in diameter) and may feel doughlike in texture. Because it’s near the skin’s surface, the mass can be moved around freely. Most lipomas are also not painful when touched or moved. Although lipomas can appear anywhere on the body, they typically develop on the arms, shoulders, back, neck, torso, and thighs.

Those with lymphoma may experience swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, or groin. The swelling is not usually painful. A person with lymphoma may have swollen lymph nodes in just one area or multiple areas (referred to as generalized lymphadenopathy). Multiple regions with swollen lymph nodes occur in people with non-Hodgkin lymphoma more frequently than in those with Hodgkin lymphoma.

Symptoms of Lipoma and Lymphoma

Aside from the presence of a mass, there are generally no other symptoms that come with lipomas besides possible discomfort. Lipomas can be painful if they press against a nerve or develop near a joint.

Lymphoma, on the other hand, comes with a range of symptoms. Swollen lymph nodes are the most common symptom, and other signs and symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite

The symptoms you experience depend on the type of lymphoma you have.

What Causes Lipoma and Lymphoma?

Both lipomas and lymphoma have no identified cause. It is believed that genetics may play a role in a person’s likelihood of developing a lipoma. The same is true of lymphoma.

Lymphoma starts in the lymph nodes and vessels of the lymphatic system. Like other types of cancer, lymphoma is caused by genetic mutations that allow cells to divide and grow in a disorganized way. In people with lymphoma, white blood cells known as lymphocytes develop genetic mutations that allow them to grow faster and live longer than healthy cells.

The genetic mutations that can cause lymphoma may be acquired or inherited. Acquired mutations are caused by normal aging and exposure to carcinogens, such as radiation, certain chemicals, smoking, and some viruses. Inherited mutations, which occur far less frequently, are passed down from parents to children and are present in the DNA of all cells at birth.

There are two types of lymphoma: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Both acquired mutations and inherited factors are believed to increase the risk of developing Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It is still unclear why some people develop lymphoma and others do not.

What Causes Lymphoma Lumps?

The lumps seen in lymphoma occur when cancerous cells accumulate in the lymph nodes, causing them to swell. When a person’s lymphoma is active, their body is producing more cancerous cells. This cell production causes the lymph nodes to enlarge. In periods when the lymphoma is less active, some cancerous cells will die, causing the lymph nodes to shrink.

Not all cases of swollen lymph nodes mean that a person has lymphoma. In fact, enlarged lymph nodes are much more frequently caused by infections. Enlarged lymph nodes are the most common symptom of lymphoma.

Treatment Options for Lipoma and Lymphoma

If you notice any new lumps under your skin, your doctor will begin the diagnostic process by performing a physical examination. The doctor may also ask you to undergo a series of tests. They will likely recommend performing a biopsy (removal of a small part of the cyst for testing) to confirm a diagnosis.

Once your doctor has determined the cause of your symptoms, they will work with you to come up with the right treatment plan.

Watch and Wait

The “watch-and-wait” approach involves carefully monitoring the progression of your symptoms. As its name suggests, your health care team will wait until you have developed new or worsened symptoms before starting a treatment.

Your doctors will advise you to visit them regularly to help them monitor the lump and note if it changes over time. This period may involve routine testing to track your symptoms. You should let your health care team know if you develop any new symptoms or if your existing symptoms worsen.

Treatments for Lipoma

In general, lipomas need no treatment unless they hinder your usual movements or make you self-conscious about your appearance. Treatments for lipoma may include injections or surgery.

Injection Lipolysis

Injection lipolysis, also known as lipodissolve, is the treatment of choice if you have one or two lipomas. This procedure involves injecting a chemical solution (phosphatidylcholine/sodium deoxycholate, or PDC/DC) into the lipoma. This solution encourages the fatty tissue to dissolve over time. Because the procedure is quick and localized, you don’t have to stay in the clinic or hospital for extended periods.

Surgery

If injection lipolysis is unsuccessful, you may choose to have the lipoma surgically removed. Like injection, a lipoma excision (removal) doesn’t take long. In general, it takes about 30 minutes for the procedure to be completed. Once your surgery is done, your health care team will advise you to avoid activities that apply too much pressure on your body, such as heavy lifting and swimming, for several weeks.

Treatments for Lymphoma

Most lymphomas require immediate treatment if you start to notice symptoms. The growth of lymphoma lumps is generally unpredictable. To be safe, doctors usually treat lymphoma as a fast-progressing condition, especially if you’re already showing many symptoms of the disease.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy (“chemo”) refers to the treatment of cancer with drugs that destroy or slow the growth of cancer cells. Chemo is a mainstay treatment for lymphoma that your cancer care team will recommend you consider.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy, also known as RT or radiotherapy, is considered the primary treatment approach for early-stage lymphoma. This procedure uses beams of energy to destroy cancerous cells while preserving healthy cells. It is usually performed with chemotherapy to increase the chances of completely treating lymphoma.

Bone Marrow Transplant

Bone marrow is the soft and spongy part found inside your bones. It contains cells that are responsible for the production of new blood. Bone marrow transplants are usually performed with chemotherapy because chemo kills both the healthy marrow tissue as well as the cancerous cells.

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Lymphoma and its complications can be daunting, which makes support crucial. MyLymphomaTeam is the social network for people with lymphoma and their loved ones. More than 11,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their experiences with others who understand life with lymphoma.

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Posted on June 15, 2022
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Todd Gersten, M.D. is a hematologist-oncologist at the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Wellington, Florida. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Joanne Zamora is a pharmacist with nearly a decade of clinical experience in a tertiary hospital setting. Learn more about her here.

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