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Lymph nodes

Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped organs that produce and store blood cells, which help fight disease and infection. Also known as lymph glands, lymph nodes remove cell waste and fluids from lymph (lymphatic fluid), and store lymphocytes (white blood cells). Part of the lymphatic system, lymph nodes are scattered throughout the body, including the neck, armpits, abdomen and groin.

Causes of swollen lymph nodes

An infection, such as a viral upper respiratory infection like the common cold, may cause the lymph nodes to swell. Sometimes, swollen lymph nodes are caused by an underlying condition. When lymph nodes swelling persists and is accompanied by other symptoms, such as fever, night sweats or  without any obvious infection, it may be time to see a doctor for an evaluation.

Cancer in the lymph nodes

Some cancers cause swelling of the lymph nodes. Cancer may start in the lymph nodes, or more commonly, it may spread there from somewhere else in the body.

  • Pain or swelling in the lymph nodes is a common symptom of cancer that starts in the lymphatic system, such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Cancer that starts in another part of the body and spreads to the lymph nodes is called metastasis. Even when cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, it is still named after the area of the body where it started.

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.