Cancer that starts in the lymph nodes is lymphoma. Cancer may also spread from other areas of the body to various lymph nodes, including the neck.

Lymph nodes are part of the immune system. Their job is to filter out unhealthy cells, including those from infections and cancer. Lymph nodes may swell as they fight foreign substances.

Swollen lymph nodes are usually due to a cause other than cancer, such as an infection.

However, swollen lymph nodes can sometimes indicate lymphoma. Cancer may also spread to the lymph nodes from another area.

This article looks at cancer and lymph nodes in the neck, lymphoma, the lymphatic system, and more.

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The lymphatic system consists of lymph vessels and lymph nodes throughout the body.

Lymph vessels carry lymph fluid which contains lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. Lymphocytes help fight infections.

Lymph vessels connect to hundreds of lymph nodes in the body, which filter lymph fluid for foreign substances, including cancer. Lymph nodes also have white blood cells to fight infections.

This is why a person may have enlarged or swollen lymph nodes when they have an infection.

There are lymph nodes throughout the body, including the:

  • armpit
  • chest
  • abdomen
  • groin

The neck contains many lymph nodes, with more than 300 in the head and neck area. Clusters of nodes sit around the ear, under the jaw and chin, and down either side of the neck.

Lymphoma is cancer that begins in the lymphatic system and may affect lymph nodes in the neck.

Cancer cells may also travel from other body areas through the lymphatic system and collect in neck lymph nodes.

Lymphoma is cancer that begins in the lymphatic system.

There are two main types of lymphoma:

  • Hodgkin lymphoma: Professionals refer to it as Hodgkin lymphoma (HL) if there are a certain type of cells — called Reed-Sternberg cells — present. The number of these cells increases as the disease advances. HL can spread from one lymph node to another.
  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL): This type of lymphoma does not have Reed-Sternberg cells present. The cancer can spread through the lymphatic system.

There are two main kinds of lymphocytes in the lymphatic system:

  • B lymphocytes, or B cells: B cells produce antibodies, a protein that helps protect the body from infections.
  • T lymphocytes, or T cells: T cells help to fight infections and abnormal cells and affect how immune system cells function.

Lymphoma starts in either of these lymphocytes. However, it most commonly begins in B cells.

In the United States, NHL is one of the most common cancer types, accounting for around 4% of cancers. It can affect people of any age. However, it is more common in older adults.

Hodgkin lymphoma is more common in younger adults. However, the risk increases again after the age of 55.


Symptoms of lymphoma include:

Cancer from any location in the body may spread into lymph nodes.

Cancer cells may break free from the original tumor and travel through the lymphatic system to nearby lymph nodes.

Cancers that typically spread to lymph nodes include:

Cancer may spread to distant lymph nodes. Distant refers to areas far from the original cancer site.

Doctors refer to cancer that has spread to lymph nodes as secondary cancer.

If cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, it is regional stage cancer.


The main symptom of cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes is one or more swollen lymph nodes.

If a swollen lymph node presses on nearby organs, it may cause symptoms such as:

Cancer in lymph nodes may also block the flow of lymph fluid, which can cause a buildup of fluid called lymphedema.

This may cause swelling in the arms or legs.

Lymph node removal may be part of treatment for a primary cancer that has spread or may be likely to spread to the lymph nodes.

The term for this procedure is lymph node dissection or lymphadenectomy.

A procedure called neck dissection removes lymph nodes from the neck.

For this, a person will receive a general anesthetic before a surgeon makes an incision to remove the lymph nodes from either one or both sides of the neck.

People may have lymph node dissection at the same time as surgery to remove the primary tumor, or as a separate procedure.

After surgery, people may need to stay in the hospital for a few days to recover. Pain medications and antibiotics may help to reduce the risk of infection and ease any discomfort.

This section answers some frequently asked questions about lymph nodes and cancer.

What is the survival rate of lymph node cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society, the overall 5-year relative survival rate for NHL is 73% and 88% for Hodgkin lymphoma.

The survival rate for cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes may depend on the type and location of the cancer.

What happens when cancer spreads to lymph nodes in the neck?

If cancer spreads to lymph nodes in the neck, people may have neck dissection surgery to remove the cancerous lymph nodes and reduce the risk of the cancer spreading or returning.

People may also have other treatments, such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy, to help destroy the cancer cells.

Lymphoma is cancer that starts in the lymph nodes. Cancer from other areas of the body may also travel to the lymph nodes.

Swollen lymph nodes may indicate cancer, although it is usually a sign of infection.

Lymph node removal and other cancer therapies may help treat cancer in the lymph nodes.