Early Stage Swollen Lymph Nodes In Neck Cancer

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Early Stage Swollen Lymph Nodes In Neck Cancer
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American Kidney Fund: “Why do I have blood in my urine?”

Are Swollen Lymph Nodes a Symptom of Cancer?

Lymph nodes are located throughout your body in areas such as your armpits, under your jaw, and on the sides of your neck.

These kidney-bean-shaped masses of tissue protect your body from infection and filter a clear fluid, called lymph, that circulates through your lymphatic system. Lymph contains a large number of white blood cells that protect your body against bacteria and viruses.

By trapping viruses and bacteria, lymph nodes prevent them from spreading to other areas of your body and causing illness. When your lymph nodes are swollen, it is an indicator they’re fighting an infection or illness.

If you have swollen lymph nodes, you shouldn’t immediately expect cancer. However, you should visit your doctor if:

  • your lymph nodes continue enlarging
  • swelling is present for more than two weeks
  • they feel hard and you can’t move them when you press them

Though rare, swollen lymph nodes can be a sign of cancer. Two primary cancers associated with swollen lymph nodes are lymphoma and leukemia.

Lymphoma

The two common types of lymphoma are Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Along with swollen lymph nodes, lymphoma has symptoms such as:

Risk factors include:

  • Sex. Males are more likely to develop lymphoma.
  • Age. Some types of lymphoma are common in those over age 55, while others are most often experienced by young adults.
  • Immune system. If you already have a condition associated with your immune system, or you take medication that impacts your immune system, you may be at a higher risk for lymphoma.

Leukemia

Leukemia causes an increase of abnormal white blood cells, which then crowd out the healthy ones that fight infection. One symptom of leukemia is swollen lymph nodes. Clusters of abnormal white blood cells collect in your lymph nodes, resulting in enlargement.

Other symptoms of leukemia that accompany swollen lymph nodes include:

  • anemia
  • easily bleeding or bruising
  • discomfort under your lower left ribs

You may have a higher risk of leukemia if you:

  • smoke cigarettes
  • have history of leukemia in your family
  • have had chemotherapy or radiation from previous cancer treatment

Swollen lymph nodes are often not a sign of cancer. Instead, you may be experiencing:

Your doctor can provide a proper diagnosis and treatment plan, as treatment will depend on the specific cause. Many cases of swollen lymph nodes fade on their own without treatment.

Swollen or enlarged lymph nodes aren’t always a sign of cancer, but you should seek medical attention if symptoms persist or appear unusual.

Your doctor may examine your medical history, perform a lymph node biopsy, or conduct imaging studies such as a chest X-ray or CT scan to further determine the underlying causes.

Last medically reviewed on January 8, 2019

How we reviewed this article:

Healthline has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references. You can learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate and current by reading our editorial policy.

  • Leukemia. (2016).
    my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/4365-leukemia
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. (2018). Lymphoma.
    mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lymphoma/symptoms-causes/syc-20352638
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. (2018). Swollen lymph nodes.
    mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/swollen-lymph-nodes/symptoms-causes/syc-20353902

When Do Swollen Lymph Nodes Mean Cancer?

When you have swollen lymph nodes, your first thought shouldn’t be, “I have cancer.” They’re much more likely to be caused by infections or a disease that affects your immune system, and they will often clear up as your body heals.

But sometimes, cancer cells will travel through your bloodstream and end up in your lymph nodes, or even start there.

Your doctor can help you figure out what’s causing the changes in your body.

Why Lymph Nodes Swell

There are more than 600 small, kidney bean-shaped lymph nodes in clusters throughout your body — under your neck, in your armpits and groin, and in the middle of your chest and belly. These store immune cells and act as filters to remove germs, dead and damaged cells, and other waste from your body.

Swollen lymph nodes are a sign that they’re working hard. More immune cells may be going there, and more waste could be building up. Swelling usually signals an infection of some kind, but it could also be from a condition like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, or rarely, cancer.

Often, swollen lymph nodes will be close to where the problem is. When you have strep throat, lymph nodes in your neck may swell. Shingles will cause swollen lymph nodes in the area where the rash breaks out.Women who have breast cancer may get swollen lymph nodes in their armpit.

When several areas of lymph nodes are swollen, that suggests the problem is throughout your body. It could be something like chickenpox, HIV, or a cancer such as leukemia or lymphoma.

When to See a Doctor

You’ll often have a good idea why a lymph node is swollen — you’ve got a cold, your tooth is infected, or you have a cut that isn’t healing well. If you can’t come up with an explanation, it may be time to get checked out.

Lymph nodes that are around 1/2 inch or bigger aren’t normal. They shouldn’t feel hard or rubbery, and you should be able to move them. The skin over them should not be red, irritated, or warm. And the swelling should go away within a couple of weeks. You should see your doctor if your lymph nodes appear abnormal.”

Other symptoms are also a reason to make an appointment:

  • Trouble breathing or swallowing
  • Night sweats
  • Fever that doesn’t break
  • Losing weight without trying to
  • Fatigue

Getting a Diagnosis

Your doctor will probably try to rule out reasons other than cancer first. They’ll do a physical exam and ask about things that have happened, like if you’ve:

  • Been scratched by a cat
  • Been bitten by a tick
  • Eaten undercooked meat
  • Had risky sex or injected street drugs
  • Traveled to certain places or areas

They’ll want to know what medications you’re taking and other symptoms you have.

Swollen nodes that are close to your collarbone or the lower part of your neck when you’re over 40 are more likely to be cancer. On the right side, related to the lungs and esophagus; on the left, organs in your belly. Swollen lymph nodes in your armpit when you don’t have a rash or sores on your arm can also be suspect.

If your doctor thinks your swollen lymph nodes could be cancer, tests and imaging can confirm the diagnosis or point to something else. Based on where the cancer might be, you could get a chest X-ray, an ultrasound, a CT scan, or an MRI. A scan called FDG-PET, which stands for fluorodeoxyglucose with positron emission tomography, can help find lymphoma and other cancers. And you’ll probably get a biopsy. They’ll take either a sample of cells from a node, typically using a needle, or remove a whole node. The sample gets sent to a lab so a specialist can check it with a microscope for cancer.

Otherwise, you’ll usually start with a complete blood count (CBC) to get a picture of your general health as well as more detailed information about your white blood cells, which fight infection. Depending on your other symptoms and your history, your doctor may want additional blood tests or x-rays, too.

If these tests don’t show another cause and the swollen nodes don’t go away in 3-4 weeks, your doctor will probably do a biopsy. Since the swelling will often go away or another cause will be found while you’re waiting to do a biopsy, the delay prevents people from getting procedures they don’t need. And even if it is cancer, you should still be able to treat it effectively.

When you have swollen lymph nodes throughout your body, your doctor will ask for a CBC, a chest X-ray, and an HIV test. If these are normal, you might get other tests, perhaps for tuberculosis or syphilis, an antinuclear antibody test (which checks your immune system), or a heterophile test (for the Epstein-Barr virus). The next step is a biopsy of the most abnormal node.

What Does Cancer in a Lymph Node Mean?

Cancer in your lymph nodes may point to lymphoma or another blood cancer, or may be a cancer that has spread from another site.

Based on the source of the cancer cells and how far away that is from the swollen nodes, your doctor will recommend a treatment plan. It could include surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, or a combination of treatments.

Show Sources

Insight, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: “If My Lymph Nodes Are Swollen, Do I Have Cancer?”

Cleveland Clinic: “Swollen Lymph Nodes.”

Mayo Clinic: “Swollen lymph nodes.”

JAMA Oncology: “Lymph Nodes and Lymphadenopathy in Cancer.”

American Cancer Society: “Lymph Nodes and Cancer.”

UpToDate: “Evaluation of peripheral lymphadenopathy in adults.”

Leukemia & Lymphoma Society: “Imaging Tests,” “Blood Tests.”

How to Spot the Early Warning Signs of Cancer

How can you tell something’s not quite right? Pay attention to the clues from your body.

Play it smart when you notice anything that could be a serious health problem, like cancer. Talk to your doctor and get it checked out. In general, disease is easier to treat when you spot it early.

Cancer Signals in Both Men and Women

Appetite loss. Many conditions, from depression to the flu, can make you feel less hungry. Cancer can have this effect by changing your metabolism, the way your body turns food into energy.

Stomach, pancreatic, colon, and ovarian cancers also can put pressure on your stomach and make you feel too full to eat.

Blood in the stool. Cancers can bleed, but so can a bunch of other things, like ulcers, hemorrhoids, infections, or a sore. When you see red in your poop, the blood is often from somewhere in your GI tract, meaning your esophagus, stomach, or intestines.

One way to tell where the blood is coming from is by how light or dark it looks. Bright red could mean the bleeding is in your rectum or the end of your intestines. A darker color means it may be from higher up, like a stomach ulcer (the stool is darker because it’s been exposed to stomach acid).

No matter what the cause, blood in your stool needs to be checked out. You may need a colonoscopy or other tests to find the problem.

Blood in the urine. When it shows up in your pee, blood could be a warning sign of a problem in your urinary tract. Kidney or bladder cancer can cause this symptom, but it could also be due to an infection, kidney stones, or kidney disease.

Cough that doesn’t go away. A cold or the flu can make you hack away, but it’s also a potential symptom of lung cancer, along with red flags like chest pain, weight loss, hoarseness, fatigue, and shortness of breath. See your doctor if you can’t seem to shake it, especially if you’re a smoker.

Extreme fatigue. It’s one of the most common cancer symptoms. We’re not talking about a normal type of tiredness here — it’s exhaustion that doesn’t go away. If changing your activity level or getting more sleep doesn’t make you perk up, see your doctor.

Fever that doesn’t go away. When your temperature goes up, it’s usually a sign you’ve caught an infection. But some cancers, including lymphoma, leukemia, and kidney and liver cancers, can also make that happen.

Cancer fevers often rise and fall during the day, and sometimes they peak at the same time. See your doctor if you have a temperature of over 100.5 degrees F that lasts for more than a few days.

Lump in the neck. It could be an infection, but it’s also an early warning of thyroid cancer.

Cancer lumps usually don’t hurt. If you have one that doesn’t go away or grows, see your doctor.

Night sweats. In middle-aged women, it can be a symptom of menopause, but it’s also a symptom of cancer or an infection.

Skin changes. A telltale sign of skin cancer is a growth that starts to look different or a sore that doesn’t heal. See a dermatologist for any spot that:

  • Gets bigger or thicker
  • Changes color
  • Has an oddly shaped border
  • Is bigger than a pencil eraser
  • Crusts or scabs over and doesn’t heal

Swollen lymph nodes. Lumps in the side of your neck are most likely from strep throat or another infection. Less often, cancers like lymphoma or leukemia can make the lymph nodes swell up.

Breast cancer that has spread can cause swelling in lymph nodes under the arms. If the swelling doesn’t go away in a week or so, have your doctor take a look.

Trouble swallowing. A feeling like there’s a lump in your throat is a common symptom of heartburn. Less often, when you find it hard to swallow, it can signal cancer of the esophagus. If the feeling doesn’t let up or it gets worse, see your doctor.

Shed pounds without trying. As many as 2 of 5 people who are diagnosed with cancer have lost weight. There’s no obvious cause. Get any unexplained weight loss checked out.

Cancer Symptoms in Men

Blood in urine or semen. A pink, brown, or red tinge to your pee or semen is usually nothing to panic over. Infections, kidney stones, injuries, and noncancerous prostate growth can all cause bleeding.

Less often, bladder or prostate cancer might be to blame. Your doctor can do urine tests and other exams to find the source of the blood.

Lump in the testicle. A painless one is a possible warning sign of testicular cancer. Yet the bump could also be from an injury, fluid buildup, or a hernia. It’s hard to tell the cause from your symptoms alone, so go to your doctor for an exam.

Pain during ejaculation or urination. If it hurts when you pee or have an orgasm, you may have an infection or swelling of your prostate gland or urethra. There’s a chance that these symptoms might be because of prostate cancer. If the pain doesn’t improve, have your doctor take a look.

Cancer Symptoms in Women

Breast lump or change. Although it’s a hallmark symptom of breast cancer, most lumps aren’t cancer. They’re often fluid-filled cysts or noncancerous tumors.

Still, see your doctor right away if you find any new or changing growths in your breasts, just to make sure.

Also get these changes checked out:

  • Redness or scaling of the skin over the breast
  • Breast pain
  • Nipple changes
  • Lump under your arm
  • Fluid that isn’t breast milk leaking from the nipple

Bleeding between periods or after menopause. Bleeding from the vagina during women’s reproductive years is usually their monthly period. When it happens after menopause or outside of normal periods, cervical or endometrial cancer is a possibility. Call your doctor if you have any bleeding that’s unusual for you.

Show Sources

American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery: “Head and Neck Cancer.”

American Cancer Society: “Benign breast conditions: Not all lumps are cancer,” “Do I Have Testicular Cancer?” “Fever,” “Lymph Nodes and Cancer,” “Signs and Symptoms of Bladder Cancer,” “Signs and symptoms of esophagus cancer,” “Signs and symptoms of lung cancer.”

American Kidney Fund: “Why do I have blood in my urine?”

American Society of Clinical Oncology: “Appetite Loss,” “Weight Loss.”

BreastCancer.org: “Symptoms of Breast Cancer.”

Cancer Research UK: “Dealing with Sweating,” “The Cancer Itself.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Fatigue & Cancer Fatigue.”

International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders: “Alarm Symptoms: A Cause for Alarm?”

Skin Cancer Foundation: “If You Can Spot It You Can Stop It.”

UpToDate: “Patient information: Abnormal uterine bleeding (Beyond the Basics),” “Patient Information: Blood in the stool (rectal bleeding) in adults (Beyond the Basics).”