Some forms of cancer can spread to other areas of the body as they grow. Cancer can spread to the lymph nodes via a person’s lymphatic system.

The spread of cancer to a new part of the body is called metastasis. Cancer cells can travel to other areas of a person’s body through their lymphatic system.

Read on to learn more about what the spread of cancer to the lymph nodes means, and the treatment available.

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A person’s lymphatic system is part of their immune system. The lymphatic system is a series of connected nodes and vessels.

Lymph vessels transport a substance called lymph fluid around a person’s body. Lymph fluid contains white blood cells, which help a person to fight infections.

Lymph nodes are small structures that filter foreign substances, such as cancer cells or infections, from the lymph fluid. Lymph nodes also contain white blood cells that attack invading organisms in the lymph fluid.

When cancer cells appear in a person’s lymph nodes, it means cells have broken away from the original tumor and traveled via the lymph vessels to a lymph node.

The presence of cancer cells inside a lymph node indicates that the cancer is spreading. Cancer cells that survive inside the lymph node may then travel to other parts of the body.

The rate that cancer spreads to a person’s lymph nodes may depend on the cancer they have.

Some cancers can spread more quickly to the lymph nodes. Other cancers are slow to develop, and may spread at a slower rate.

Certain cancers may only spread to lymph nodes on rare occasions. Research indicates that osteosarcomas, a form of bone cancer, only spread to the lymph nodes in 4–11% of cases.

Cancer can affect people in different ways, so it can be hard to predict how it may spread.

When a doctor discusses a person’s cancer with them, they may refer to the stage it is at. Different stages of cancer indicate how far it has spread from its original location.

The National Cancer Institute states that the stages of cancer are:

  • Stage 0: Stage 0 cancer, also called carcinoma in situ (CIS), is when abnormal cells are present, but have not spread.
  • Stage 1, 2, and 3: Stages 1 to 3 indicate that there is cancer present. The higher the stage, the larger and more spread out the cancer is.
  • Stave 4: Stage 4 cancer is when the cancer has spread to areas that are distant from the original tumor.

Healthcare professionals also break stage 3 into multiple categories, including 3a, b, and c. The stage at which cancer has spread to the lymph nodes varies. According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, the cancer may have spread to the lymph nodes at stage 3.

The staging may also differ depending on the type of cancer. Healthcare professionals may categorize Leukemias and lymphomas differently.

Another way of grading how far a person’s cancer has developed is the TNM staging system. In the TNM system, each letter refers to a different feature of the cancer:

  • the T refers to the size of the original tumor
  • the N refers to the amount of nearby lymph nodes that have cancer cells
  • the M refers to whether the cancer has metastasized or not

When a doctor uses the TNM system, they will place a number after each letter. This number provides information about a person’s cancer.

Number beside the NMeaning
XThis means that the cancer in the nearby lymph nodes is not measurable.
0This means that no cancer is present in the nearby lymph nodes.
1, 2, or 3These N numbers refer to the location and amount of lymph nodes that contain cancer. As the number after the N increases, so does the number of lymph nodes affected.

If a person has cancer cells in their lymph nodes, it may indicate that the cancer is spreading. A person may need to undergo testing to see if their cancer has spread.

Outlook for cancer that has spread to lymph nodes can depend on the type of cancer a person has.

For example, the American Cancer Society (ACS) defines the 5-year survival rate as follows once the cancer has regionally advanced, including spread to the nearby lymph nodes:

A relative survival rate helps give an idea of how long a person with a particular condition will live after receiving a diagnosis compared with those without the condition.

For example, if the 5-year relative survival rate is 70%, it means that a person with the condition is 70% as likely to live for 5 years as someone without the condition.

Research from 2016 notes that 5-year survival rates for colorectal cancer are between 70–80%. However, if the cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, this rate drops to 30–60%.

The survival rate refers to the proportion of people who are still alive for a length of time after receiving a particular diagnosis. For example, a 5-year survival rate of 50% means that 50%, or half, of the people are still alive 5 years after receiving the diagnosis.

It is important to remember that these figures are estimates and are based on the results of previous studies or treatments. A person can consult a healthcare professional about how their condition is going to affect them.

Discovering and treating cancer early can increase a person’s chances of survival. Receiving treatment quickly can mean a person’s cancer does not have a chance to spread.

There are various treatments a person can have to treat cancer that has spread to lymph nodes.

One option is surgery to remove the person’s primary cancer and affected lymph nodes. However, lymph node involvement can mean a person’s cancer is more likely to return after surgery.

Additional treatments for cancer that has spread to lymph nodes includes:

  • chemotherapy, which uses drugs to kill cancer cells
  • immunotherapy, which boosts a person’s immune system to fight cancer cells
  • targeted therapy, which uses drugs to identify and attack certain cancer cells
  • radiation therapy, which uses high-energy particles or waves to destroy cancer cells

A person’s lymph nodes are generally small and difficult to find. However, when a person’s cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, they can become large and swollen.

The spread of cancer cells to a person’s lymph nodes may not always show symptoms. If there is a small amount of cancer cells in a person’s lymph nodes, they may not appear swollen. Additionally, a person may not notice swollen lymph nodes that are deep inside their body.

A person may develop symptoms if their cancer spreads from their lymph nodes to other parts of their body. Symptoms of metastatic cancer can include:

A surgeon may make the decision to remove the lymph nodes if they contain cancer cells. However, the removal of lymph nodes can cause other issues.

The ACS notes that once the lymph nodes are removed, the lymph fluid in that area can no longer drain away.

This can cause a buildup of lymph fluid in the lymph vessels, called lymphedema. Lymphedemas can cause swelling and pain in the affected area, and can become life-long problems.

If a person has cancer, a doctor may perform a biopsy on lymph nodes near the primary location. This biopsy will show the doctor if there are any cancer cells in a person’s lymph nodes.

If a doctor finds cancer cells are found, they may use the following categories:

  • Microscopic, or minimal: This means that only a few cancer cells were found in the lymph node.
  • Gross, significant, or macroscopic: This indicates that there is a large amount of cancer cells in the lymph node.
  • Extracapsular extension: Extracapsular extension means the cancer cells have spread outside the walls of the lymph node.

If a person notices any signs of cancer having spread to their lymph nodes, they should speak with a doctor immediately.

Additionally, if a person with cancer notices any unusual new symptoms, they should contact a doctor. The sooner a person receives treatment for cancer that has spread, the better their chances of survival.

Cancer can spread to other parts of a person’s body via their lymphatic system. A biopsy on a person’s lymph nodes can help a doctor determine if their cancer is spreading or not.

The chances of a person’s cancer spreading to their lymph nodes can depend on the type they have. If a person notices any symptoms of their cancer spreading, they should contact a doctor immediately. Receiving treatment quickly can reduce the chances of a person’s cancer spreading further.

Although the removal of lymph nodes containing cancer cells can be beneficial, it can also cause issues. A person should discuss what treatment options are best for them with a doctor.