January 10, 2024
January 10, 2024

A Quick Guide to Understanding Lymph Node Cancer Symptoms

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A Quick Guide to Understanding Lymph Node Cancer Symptoms

Lymph nodes often go unnoticed in our everyday lives, but they are keystones of our body's immune system. They can sometimes become sources of concern when they swell. The swelling can trigger an alarm, particularly with the looming questions: Does this indicate cancer? What are lymph node cancer symptoms? Is lymph node cancer serious, and is it curable? When should I be worried? 

This article addresses common questions and concerns, such as when to seek medical advice and the implications of swollen lymph nodes. We’ll explain the nature of lymph glands, their role in the body, and how to differentiate between harmless swelling and potential signs of cancer. We’ll also explore why early detection is crucial and the options available for screening and possible detection.

What Are Lymph Nodes?

The human body has a highly efficient defense system, with lymph nodes working as filters to fight infection and illness. The lymphatic system comprises the tonsils and adenoids, the spleen, thymus and lymph nodes, with a fluid called lymph running in channels in the body. 

Lymph nodes swell to stop an infection from spreading throughout your body. Think of them as your body's sentinels, growing in size temporarily and standing to attention when fighting common conditions like a cold, strep throat, a skin infection, or glandular fever. They also cause enlarged lymph nodes when cancer cells travel in the lymph fluid through the lymphatic system. 

Lymph Node Locations and Noticeability

Lymph nodes are present throughout your entire body, some deeper and internal and some closer to the skin's surface. They can be in clusters or groups or attached in rows. You'll most likely notice them in your neck, armpits, and groin if they swell up, as they are easier to see and feel than internal lymph nodes.

Swollen Lymph Nodes: Infection vs. Cancer?

Lymph nodes or glands that have come up due to infection tend to be tender to touch. Usually, they are not hard and are not attached to structures underneath them, so you can move or wiggle them a bit. The skin moves over them freely. There may be more than one gland in a group that is affected. This type of swelling due to infection usually decreases in a couple of weeks once the infection clears. If a lymph node is still there after four weeks, you should see a healthcare professional.

Characteristics of Potentially Cancerous Lymph Nodes

Here are some potential lymph node cancer symptoms you should know, particularly when combined with other symptoms like unexplained weight loss, fatigue, shortness of breath, or night sweats:

  • Lymph nodes that stay swollen for longer than four weeks
  • Any lymph node that feels hard or rubbery
  • A lymph node that doesn't move when you press it
  • A solitary node

Keep in mind that these characteristics can vary. Not all cancerous lymph nodes will feel the same, nor will they all lead to a cancer diagnosis.

What Cancers Affect Lymph Nodes?

Lymph nodes cancer symptoms: old man touching his neck

Various types of cancers can cause lymph node symptoms, each affecting different lymph node locations. Let’s take a closer look at some of them.

Primary Cancers and Lymph Node Cancer Symptoms

Primary cancers like breast, thyroid, prostate, lung, stomach, colon, and some skin cancers can cause symptoms in distant lymph nodes. For instance:

  • Breast cancer often leads to swollen nodes under the arm or around the collarbone
  • Thyroid and throat cancers might cause nodes to swell in the neck
  • Lung cancer and stomach cancer can affect nodes above the collarbone and in the abdomen, respectively
  • Prostate and colon cancers might cause swelling in the lymph nodes around the groin or lower abdomen

Recognizing other symptoms that may accompany swollen lymph nodes is crucial. As mentioned, these can include, but are not limited to, fatigue, unexplained weight loss, night sweats, shortness of breath, or fever. Such lymph node cancer symptoms can provide important clues about underlying conditions associated with swollen lymph nodes.

Lymphoma: Cancer of the Lymph Nodes

Additionally, there's a specific type of cancer called lymphoma, which originates in the lymph nodes themselves. White blood cells usually fight infection, but they become a blood cancer called lymphoma when they grow out of control. 

B cells and T cells are also lymphocytes. Leukemia and myeloma are other types of blood cancer that originate in the bone marrow. Swollen lymph nodes are a common symptom of lymphoma, causing swelling often starting in the neck, armpits, or groin. Other areas can also be affected as it progresses.

The seriousness of lymph node cancer, or lymphoma, depends on various factors, including the type of lymphoma (Hodgkin lymphoma or non-Hodgkin lymphoma), stage, and how rapidly it is spreading. 

The curability of cancer in the lymph nodes varies depending on factors like the type of cancer, its stage, and the overall health of the individual. Early evaluation by a health professional will lead to a better chance of a positive outcome.

Surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy are cancer treatments for removing or shrinking primary tumors. Lymphoma treatment may include chemotherapy, immunotherapy medications, radiation therapy, bone marrow, or stem cell transplant. 

However, it's important to note that swollen lymph nodes are not usually due to cancer. More commonly, benign conditions like infections cause them to swell. Nevertheless, persistent swelling, especially without obvious causes or accompanying symptoms of infection, should be evaluated and assessed to ensure they’re not cancer warnings.

What’s the Best Way to Address Swollen Lymph Nodes?

Lymph nodes cancer symptoms: doctor talking to a patient

If you're worried about swollen lymph nodes that have appeared, the best course of action is to see a medical provider. During your visit, they will discuss your symptoms in detail to understand potential causes of the swollen lymph nodes. 

A physical exam of the nodes will assess their size, texture, and whether or not they are tender. Your practitioner may also examine any relevant part of the body where primary cancers commonly occur, such as breasts, lungs, abdomen, skin, prostate, and colon. 

Your healthcare professional may recommend additional lab work or tests based on their initial assessment. Testing may include blood tests or imaging tests such as an ultrasound scan, X-rays, or a CT scan to check for infections or other conditions that might cause lymph node swelling. 

Sometimes, a biopsy (a small sample of the lymph node tissue) is taken for further analysis. Usually, the sample is taken from the node closest to the primary site of a potential cancer, the "sentinel" node.

The Importance of Early Detection

Lymph node swelling can sometimes be the first sign that something is amiss in your body, appearing before other symptoms, or it might occur after other signs have already emerged. This variability underscores the importance of being proactive about your health. 

Monitoring changes in your body, like the swelling of lymph nodes, and responding promptly to those changes can be crucial in catching diseases early in their development. For instance, a mammogram or a prostate MRI scan can show early changes that need further attention. 

A Proactive Health Approach

Adopting a proactive stance, rather than a wait-and-see approach, is always advisable. It's better to get checked by a healthcare professional if you notice changes like swollen lymph nodes, even if you don't feel other symptoms. This way, you can either get reassurance that nothing serious is amiss or, if necessary, have further investigations. If you’ve had cancer previously, then you would see your oncology team for follow-up.

Know the Signs and Take Charge of Your Health

There are many different reasons you may have a swollen lymph node. Your healthcare provider can help identify any potential causes for the swelling and should be your first port of call if you’re worried about swollen lymph nodes or have other concerning symptoms.

Usually, a swollen lymph node is not related to cancer, but if you have lymph node swelling in any part of the body or lymph node cancer symptoms, then they need to be checked. Ezra's Full Body scan covers 13 organs, including the common sites of primary cancers.

Ezra helps with early detection, which is the best defense against cancer. Feel free to take the Ezra cancer risk quiz. It takes just five minutes and can be a proactive step towards offering peace of mind.