Pay Attention to Your Lymph Nodes for Cancer Signs

Categories: Cancer Risk

July 24, 2017

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.

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, neck and upper chest, under your arms, and in your groin on either side of the pubic bone.

When you have an illness or infection and get "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 2 ways:

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

If cancer is in the lymph nodes it does not necessarily mean you have lymph node cancer -- or lymphoma. 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.

Cancer can also start in the lymph nodes, and this kind of blood cancer is called "lymphoma." Blood cancers, such as lymphoma, start in the cells of the lymph system, and because lymph tissues are found throughout the body, lymphoma can begin almost anywhere.

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 technology 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 they feel hard to the touch and don't go away after two weeks or so. When night sweats, fever or unexpected weight loss go along with swollen lymph nodes, it's also important to seek medical help.

To learn more about lymph node screenings, ask your doctor for a referral to your local cancer specialists. If you are located in or around the Portland, OR or Vancouver, WA areas and would like to make an appointment with one of our oncologists please contact us for an appointment. Our six cancer treatment centers located throughout Portland and Vancouver offer advanced and personalized treatment and expert guidance from 39 specially trained and board-certified oncologists.