Lymph Nodes: An Early Warning Sign of Cancer

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Lymph Nodes: An Early Warning Sign of Cancer

Lymph nodes (also called lymph glands) are part of your immune system, and they let you know when your body is fighting an infection by becoming enlarged or sensitive to the touch. They also function as an early warning system for some types of cancer, including lymphoma, leukemia, and breast cancer.

What are Lymph Nodes?

Lymph is a clear fluid that circulates throughout your body, bringing nutrients to cells and carrying away bacteria and waste products. This fluid flows through a special system of tiny vessels in your body, passing through small bean-shaped filtering organs called lymph nodes. Some nodes are as large as an inch across, while others are as small as a pinhead. 

Clusters of these nodes are located at the sides of your jaws,  in the neck, upper chest, under your arms, and in your groin on either side of the pubic bone.

If you’ve ever developed an illness or infection and noticed "swollen glands" in your neck, those are your lymph nodes working hard to defend your immune system from the waste products (such as bacteria and viruses) that your lymph system has detected.

How Lymph Nodes and Cancer are Related

Cancer can appear in lymph nodes in two ways:

  1. It can spread to the lymph nodes from somewhere else  
  2. It can start in the lymph nodes

If cancer is in the lymph nodes, it does not necessarily mean you have lymph node cancer. Because lymph fluid carries cells around the body, cancers that start elsewhere sometimes spread to the lymph nodes. Those nodes can also show signs of change even if the cancer has not spread to other organs. For example, if the diagnosis is breast cancer, then the breast cancer cells may have traveled to the lymph system, and the patient will be treated only for breast cancer. Learn more about the role of lymph nodes in breast cancer.

Cancer that starts in the cells of the lymph system is called lymphoma, which is a type of blood cancer. Because lymph tissues are found throughout the body, lymphoma can begin almost anywhere. There are two main types of lymphoma: Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's.

Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma involve different types of lymphocyte cells. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is more common and can start in lymph nodes anywhere in the body. Most cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma are diagnosed only after they’ve reached an advanced stage. Hodgkin lymphoma usually starts in the upper body (armpits, neck, or chest). Because Hodgkin lymphoma is often diagnosed early, it’s considered a very treatable cancer.

Lymph Node Screening

If you have a cancer diagnosis, your oncologist will often run tests to see if the lymph fluid shows evidence of cancer cells. The results of lymph node screening help the doctor identify what stage your cancer is in and ultimately assist your cancer specialist in determining the type and frequency of your cancer treatment.

Your doctor will first feel the lymph nodes close to the surface to check for soreness or swelling. Many nodes, however, are too tiny or too deep in your body to be felt with the hands. For this reason, imaging technologies such as X-rays, MRIs, ultrasound, or CAT scans are also used to spot any enlargement. A biopsy is typically required as part of the diagnostic process. Your oncologist will usually remove one or two of the nearby lymph nodes to see if they show any evidence of cancer.

Signs to Watch For

You should see a doctor if you have swollen lymph nodes but don't have any obvious illness. This is especially important if your lymph nodes feel hard to the touch, and that feeling doesn't go away after two weeks or so. When swollen lymph nodes are accompanied by any of the following symptoms, seek medical attention include.

  • Night sweats
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Coughing, chest pain, or shortness of breath
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Abdominal pain or swelling
  • Frequent or severe infections
  • Feeling full after eating just a small amount of food
  • Unexpected weight loss

If a doctor has indicated that you should have a lymph node screening, and you are located in or around the Portland and Tigard, Oregon, or Vancouver, Washington areas, Compass Oncology’s cancer treatment centers offer advanced, personalized treatment options and expert guidance from board-certified oncologists. To make an appointment with one of our oncologists, please contact us. If you are not located close to one of our cancer treatment centers, your primary care physician or oncologist should be able to recommend a screening provider near you.

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Originally published July 2017. Updated August 2022.