What is the lymph system?
Our bodies have a network of lymph vessels and lymph nodes. (Lymph is pronounced limf.) This network is a part of the body’s immune system. It collects fluid, waste material, and other things (like viruses and bacteria) that are in the body tissues, outside the bloodstream.
Lymph vessels are a lot like the veins that collect and carry blood through the body. But instead of carrying blood, these vessels carry the clear watery fluid called lymph.
Lymph fluid flows out from capillary walls to bathe the body’s tissue cells. It carries oxygen and other nutrients to the cells, and carries away waste products like carbon dioxide (CO2) that flow out of the cells. Lymph fluid also contains white blood cells, which help fight infections.
Cancer spreading to the lymph nodes
Cancer appearing in the lymph nodes is an indicator of how the cancer is spreading. If cancer cells are only found in the lymph nodes near the original tumor, it may indicate the cancer is in an earlier stage and has not spread far beyond its primary area.
On the other hand, if your doctor finds the cancer cells have traveled to lymph nodes far from the initial tumor, the cancer may be spreading at a faster rate and could be in a later stage.
Additionally, it’s important to know how many cancer cells have traveled to the respective lymph node. If there’s visible or palpable cancer in lymph nodes, or the cancer has grown outside the lymph node walls, the cancer may have progressed further and may require a different treatment plan.
Cancer spreading to lymph nodes symptoms
If cancer cells have spread to your lymph nodes (or beyond your lymph nodes to another part of the body), symptoms may include:
lump or swelling in your neck, under your arm, or in your groin
swelling in your stomach (if the cancer spreads to your liver)
shortness of breath (if the cancer spreads to the lungs)
- seizures or dizziness
You may not experience noticeable symptoms of cancer cells spreading to your lymph nodes, so a diagnosis from your doctor is important. They can determine if the cancer is isolated to one region or has metastasized further.
Lymph nodes and staging cancer
Lymph nodes play an important role in cancer staging, which determines the extent of cancer in the body. One of the most commonly used systems for staging cancer is the TNM system, which is based on the extent of the tumor (T), the extent of spread to the lymph nodes (N), and the presence of metastasis (M).
If no cancer is found in the lymph nodes near the cancer, the N is assigned a value of 0. If nearby or distant nodes show cancer, the N is assigned a number (such as 1, 2 or 3), depending on how many nodes are affected, how much cancer is in them, how large they are, and where they are located.
Treatment for cancer in the lymph nodes
Treatment for cancer in the lymph nodes depends on a variety of factors, including tumor size and location, and whether the cancer has metastasized (spread) to other areas of the body.
Surgery may be used to treat some forms of metastatic cancer that have spread to the lymph nodes. Other treatment options for cancerous lymph nodes may include chemotherapy, stem cell transplantation as well as other therapies.
At Cancer Treatment Center of America (CTCA), we provide personalized treatment plans using various tools and technologies to target and treat the cancer, while also supporting patients’ quality of life with evidence-informed supportive therapies designed to manage side effects.
Diagnosis and treatment
Doctors often classify the stages of cancer using the TNM system:
T (tumor) refers to the size or extent of the tumor
N (number) refers to the number of lymph nodes that contain cancer
M (metastasis) refers to the cancer spreading to distant parts of the body
Diagnostic procedures — such as a biopsy or imaging tests — will help your doctor determine the extent of the cancer and the number of lymph nodes impacted.
Treatment will be influenced by:
how much cancer is in your lymph nodes
if the cancer has spread far beyond the original location
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