Lymph nodes are an important part of the body’s immune system, responsible for attacking germs, bacteria, and viruses. When cancer appears in the lymph nodes it’s an indicator of cancer spreading from other regions of the body.1 Although, in some cases, it could be the result of cancer originating in the lymph nodes or other parts of the lymphatic system. When cancer originates in the lymph nodes, it is diagnosed as lymphoma.
As cancer cells multiply and overtake healthy functioning cells, they travel at more aggressive rates and grow into new tumors. This progression is referred to as metastasis and is one of the factors that determine a cancer diagnosis, outlook, and treatment.
To further understand what happens when cancer spreads to different lymph nodes, it’s important to factor in if and how far the cancer cells have metastasized, as well as the tumor size and location. Early symptoms may include:
- Swelling of the lymph nodes, particularly in the neck, armpit, or in the groin area
- Stomach swelling (if cancer has spread to the liver)
- Shortness of breath (if cancer has spread to the lungs)
- Pain, headaches, and dizziness
Other signs of cancerous cells may be fatigue, extreme weight loss, and adverse effects in regions of the body where there is tumor growth.
However, it’s also important to note swollen lymph glands can also be indicative of infection or injury. For example, when you’re ill, it’s common for lymph node areas, especially around the neck, to feel enlarged as they work to get rid of the “bad” cells. It’s a sign your body’s immune system is working overtime to rid the system of invading bacteria, viruses, and other harmful pathogens.2
Testing Lymph Nodes for Cancer
A swollen lymph node can be felt with your fingertips and sometimes, and if large enough, can be seen. However, there are other areas of the body where lymph nodes are more difficult to find and don’t present symptoms on the surface. The only way to confirm a cancer diagnosis in the lymph nodes is through a biopsy.
A biopsy is performed by using a long, thin needle to remove part of the lymph nodes or lymphatic tissue and reviewing it under a microscope to see if there are cancerous cells. The number of cancer cells will determine the course of treatment. There are additional tests to also determine how far cancer has spread and the cancer stage. All of this plays a part in the type, frequency, and outlook of treatment.
If you are wondering, “is cancer of the lymph nodes terminal,” understand that cancer spread to the lymph nodes does not automatically determine which stage it’s in.3 Typically, if it’s traveled far from its originating tumor source, it could indicate a later stage, though there are several tests that can be performed to get a clearer picture. These include:
- Physical exams. A routine checkup can reveal symptoms that have reached the surface. For example, during a breast exam, any enlarged lymph nodes or bumps, particularly under the arm can be cause for conducting a biopsy.
- CT scan and PET scan. Imaging tests provide more information that shows where the cancer is in the body and how much of it is present.
- Endoscopy exams. An endoscope is a thin, lighted tube with a small camera attached that explores the inside of the body. When symptoms manifest in certain areas, this type of exam can hone in on what’s going on inside.
- Lab tests. Another way to get a better idea of the progression of cancerous cells, blood tests may also be used to help stage certain types of cancer.
Not all of these tests are necessary to confirm cancer staging, but they each help deliver more information to make an accurate diagnosis. Furthermore, cancer staging is assigned at the time of diagnosis but can be restaged following treatment. This is based on if cancer has stopped its growth or metastasized to other areas of the body.
Assigning a Cancer Stage
Cancer stages are typically assigned a Roman numeral and are determined by the TNM testing and other factors.4 The system is used mostly to describe cancers with solid tumors, such as breast, lung, or colon cancer. TNM stands for:
- Size of tumor and spread into nearby tissue
- Spread of cancer to nearby lymph nodes
- Metastasis, the spread of cancer to other areas of the body
Stage I: The earliest cancer stage is when a tumor has not grown deeply into nearby tissues and has not yet spread to lymph nodes or other areas of the body. In some cases, cancer staging may be described as “in situ” which means “in place” and is technically Stage 0. This early stage is the most curable and usually treated by removing the tumor with surgery.
Stage II and III: These progressive stages indicate larger tumors that have grown more deeply into the tissues and may have spread to the lymph nodes, but may not yet have reached other areas of the body.
Stage IV: This stage is determined to be the most advanced or metastatic cancer, which means it has spread throughout the body, to the lymph nodes, and beyond.
Cancer Types and Alternative Treatments
The type and stage of cancer help guide the treatment plan, which should be customized for each patient by taking into account specific needs, symptoms, and overall health.
The most common symptom of breast cancer is the appearance of a new lump or mass, though you can have cancerous cells without any symptoms, which makes routine breast cancer screenings important. If breast cancer cells break away from the primary tumor, it’s likely they’ll reach the lymph nodes closest to the breast, which are referred to as sentinel lymph nodes a.k.a. lymph nodes under the armpit.
So, what happens when cancer spreads to the lymph nodes in this case? The survival rate decreases from 99 percent to 86 percent when breast cancer reaches the lymph nodes and is confirmed as at least stage two. Metastatic tumor breast cancer is stage 4. Breast cancer that’s reached the lymph nodes doesn’t necessarily mean it’s already spread to other areas, but treatment may be more aggressive to prevent further metastasizing.5
Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer
There are several different types of alternative therapy available to treat breast cancer. Hormone therapy and immunotherapy are two alternatives to conventional chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Hormone therapy is most often used post-surgery to reduce the risk of primary cancer returning. This treatment is designed to stop hormones from attaching to breast cancer cell receptors so cancer cells can’t grow.6
Immunotherapy for Breast Cancer
Immunotherapy is another method used. It stimulates the body’s immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells more effectively. T cells normally have checkpoints that regulate their antigen-fighting activity. Cancer cells turn off T cell activity and bypass these checkpoints. With immunotherapy, these immune cells can continue functioning even upon encountering tumor cells, to help shrink tumors and slow their growth.
As with breast cancer screenings, it’s important for men to undergo regular prostate cancer screenings as well. Though there may be lymph node swelling or lumps that may form near the groin area, staging prostate cancer starts with testing PSA levels.
PSA stands for prostate-specific antigen. Higher than normal levels of PSA will trigger the need for more tests to confirm cancerous growth and grade how aggressive it is. The Gleason score is used to grade for prostate cancer and it ranges from 6 to 10, from lowest to highest. These tests and systems are used to predict how fast cancer will grow and the best route of treatment to take.7
Dendritic Cell-Based Immunotherapy
Dendritic cell-based immunotherapy is an alternative cancer treatment for advanced prostate cancer. This therapy helps to prevent the onset of cancer by suppressing tumor cell growth rates. It works by isolating dendritic cells with tumor antigen-loaded mature dendritic cells and administering them as a therapeutic vaccine.
The treatment involves a simple blood draw and filtering of monocyte cells and loading them with the tumor-associated antigens. Then, the dendritic cell vaccination is administered to attack tumor cells by activating T cells in the lymph nodes.
The TNM system is used to assign cancer stages, although it differs by tumor type as well as the age of the patient. For example, in papillary thyroid cancer in patients younger than 55, Stage I describes any tumor that may or may not have spread to the lymph nodes but does not reflect distant metastasis. In this instance, the treatment usually involves removing the thyroid gland or part of the thyroid containing the tumor.8
Enzymatic Cancer Therapy
Enzymatic cancer therapy is another alternative cancer treatment used to neutralize cancer cells and shrink tumors. By delivering certain enzymes, such as alkaline phosphatase and beta-glucosidases, directly into cancer cells, it triggers damage that results in cancer cell death. The type of enzymes used, dosage amounts, and administration depends on the stage of the disease and the patients’ health.
Regardless of whether cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or has originated in the immune system, it calls for proactive treatment to stop the growth and/or prevention of cancer cells. Fortunately, there are several avenues of alternative, minimally invasive therapies available to make a choice that’s based on what’s best for each patient.
Additional questions? Reach out to Immunity Therapy Center to learn more about alternative and natural treatment programs.
Written By: Dr. David Alvarez
Dr. David Alvarez is a Board Certified Medical Doctor from Universidad Xochicalco and Certified by the American Heart Association (Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support).
Dr. Alvarez has been collaborating with Dr. Bautista as an Assistant Medical Director at the Immunity Therapy Center for over 6 years. He provides daily on site patient care and participates on the medical board on research and development of patient treatment plans and programs. Dr. Alvarez is a knowledgeable and compassionate Doctor committed to helping patients get to where they want to be health wise through a more holistic and comprehensive approach.
- Healthline.com. What Happens When Cancer Spreads to Lymph Nodes. https://www.healthline.com/health/what-happens-when-cancer-spreads-to-the-lymph-nodes
- American Cancer Society. Lymph Nodes and Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/lymph-nodes-and-cancer.html
- American Cancer Society. Cancer Staging. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/understanding-your-diagnosis/staging.html
- Cancer.Net. Stages of Cancer. https://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/diagnosing-cancer/stages-cancer
- American Cancer Society. Breast Cancer Early Detection and Diagnosis. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/screening-tests-and-early-detection.html
- American Cancer Society. Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/treatment/hormone-therapy-for-breast-cancer.html
- Prostate Cancer Foundation. Prostate Cancer Staging. https://www.pcf.org/about-prostate-cancer/diagnosis-staging-prostate-cancer/prostate-cancer-staging/
- Cancer.Net. Thyroid Cancer: Stages. https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/thyroid-cancer/stages
At Immunity Therapy Center, our goal is to provide objective, updated, and research-based information on all health-related topics. This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by Dr. Carlos Bautista, a Board Certified Medical Doctor at Immunity Therapy Center. All information published on the site must undergo an extensive review process to ensure accuracy. This article contains trusted sources with all references hyperlinked for the reader's visibility.