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Swollen Lymph Nodes: When to Tell if it’s Cancer?

Swollen Lymph Nodes: When to Tell if it’s Cancer?

Our bodies have more than 600 small, kidney bean-shaped lymph nodes. The lymph nodes, also known as lymph glands, help the body fight off infections. Inside the lymph nodes is a combination of various types of immune system cells, which act as waste filters for dead and damaged cells. They also trap viruses and bacteria before they infect other parts of the body. Swollen lymph nodes can often be felt or noticed on the neck, in the middle of your chest or belly, in the armpits, or in the groin area.

You may be checking your neck or armpits one day and find lumps, which may have caused some alarm. Should one be worried about swollen lymph nodes? When do swollen lymph nodes mean cancer? And when do we double-check for signs and get help from a doctor?

What do swollen lymph nodes mean?

Swollen lymph nodes do not necessarily mean cancer. In fact, there is only about 0.4% chance that swollen lymph nodes could be cancerous among patients younger than 40, and about 4% for patients 40 years of age or older. They are a sign that they’re working hard. Lymph nodes get swollen when they are infected by bacteria or viruses.

Often, these lymph nodes return to normal when the infection gets better. You can, however, see a doctor if you simply want to make sure, especially if the lymph nodes seem to have grown for no apparent reason or if they do not go away after two to four weeks.

Seek medical assistance if your lymph nodes are accompanied by continuous fever, night sweats, or unexplained weight loss. You must seek immediate medical care if the lymph nodes are accompanied by difficulty in swallowing or breathing.

Do swollen lymph nodes mean cancer?

Swollen lymph nodes can mean a lot of things and can be very confusing. It may mean that you may have

  • Strep throat
  • Measles
  • Ear infections
  • An abscessed tooth,
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

In very rare instances, swollen lymph nodes can be caused by cancer. Cancer that is found in the lymph nodes is called lymphoma. There are several types of lymphomas and they are often categorized into two: Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. So when do swollen lymph nodes mean cancer?

The consistency of the nodes can also tell you whether the lymph nodes may be cancerous. Stony-hard nodes are usually a sign of metastatic cancer. Lymph nodes that are very firm and rubbery may suggest lymphoma.

Below are other signs and symptoms of cancer in the lymph nodes:

  • Lump(s) under the skin, such as in the neck, under the arm, or in the groin
  • Fever that comes and goes for several weeks, even without an infection
  • Severe night sweats
  • Noticeable weight loss without effort
  • Difficulty in breathing, cough, chest pain
  • Itchy skin
  • Feeling tired
  • Loss of appetite

Meanwhile, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma could include the following symptoms:

  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Chills
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Swelling in the abdomen
  • Getting full easily even when eating small amounts of food
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Shortness of breath or cough
  • Severe or frequent infections
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Fever that comes and goes for several weeks, even without an infection
  • Severe night sweats
  • Noticeable weight loss without effort

Cancer cells can also spread to the lymph nodes from cancer in any part of the body. This is called metastatic cancer, in which cancer cells break from a tumor in the body and spread to the area of lymph nodes. Cancer cells will often travel to the lymph nodes nearest to the tumor.

How do doctors test swollen lymph nodes for cancer?

The only way to know whether a lymph node is cancerous is through a biopsy. In a biopsy, doctors may remove the lymph nodes or take tissue samples of them using needles.

A pathologist takes a look at these samples to tell if there are cancer cells in it. If a node has cancer in it, the pathologist will prepare a report to describe what it looks like, including its size or number.

If, indeed, there is cancer found in one or more lymph nodes, more tests may still be needed to know what stage it is in and how far cancer has spread.

When the swollen lymph nodes do mean cancer, your oncologist may suggest various cancer treatments such as:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Bone marrow transplant (also called “stem cell transplant”)
  • Surgery

Learn more about Cancer here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Lymph Nodes and Cancer, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/lymph-nodes-and-cancer.html Accessed September 8, 2021

When Are Swollen Glands a Sign of Cancer in the Lymph Nodes?, https://health.clevelandclinic.org/when-are-swollen-glands-a-sign-of-cancer-in-the-lymph-nodes/ Accessed September 8, 2021

Swollen lymph nodes, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/swollen-lymph-nodes/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20353906 Accessed September 8, 2021

Lymphadenopathy: Differential Diagnosis and Evaluation, https://www.aafp.org/afp/1998/1015/p1313.html Accessed September 8, 2021

Cancer and lymph nodes, https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000824.htm Accessed September 8, 2021

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Written by Fred Layno Updated Sep 27, 2021
Fact Checked by Kristel Dacumos-Lagorza