You have more than 300 lymph nodes in your head and neck. Cancer can either start in these lymph nodes or spread there from other body parts. Symptoms include swelling, fever, and night sweats.

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Most cancers that start in lymph nodes are called lymphoma. Lymphoma starts in a type of white blood cell found in the lymph nodes called lymphocytes.

Rarely, another type of blood cancer called myeloma can start in lymph nodes. But only about 40 cases of myeloma developing in lymph nodes have ever been reported.

Cancer can also spread to your lymph nodes from other parts of your body. When this happens, it’s called metastasized cancer. Head and neck cancers are the most likely to metastasize to the lymph nodes in your neck.

Read on to learn more about cancer in the lymph nodes of your neck, including symptoms, causes, and treatment options.

Lymph nodes and your lymphatic system

A human adult has approximately 300 lymph nodes in their head and neck and roughly 800 lymph nodes throughout their body. Lymph nodes filter fluid in your lymphatic system and contain white blood cells to help your body fight infections.

Your lymphatic system is made up of:

  • nodes
  • vessels
  • ducts
  • fluid
  • organs such as your spleen

Collectively, your lymphatic system:

  • maintains your fluid levels
  • carries immune cells throughout your body
  • absorbs fat from your digestive tract
  • removes waste and abnormal cells from your body
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Most cancers that start in your lymph nodes are called lymphoma. Lymphoma starts in lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell.

Lymphocytes are made up of:

  • B cells that create antibodies
  • T cells that destroy harmful foreign cells
  • natural killer cells that kill any cells that carry infections or cancer cells

Lymphoma is the third most common cancer that develops in the head or neck. There are actually many types of lymphoma. Your doctor won’t know which type you have until they take a tissue sample called a biopsy.

The most common category of lymphoma is called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It is the eighth most common cancer in the United States.

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma most often starts in your:

  • neck
  • armpit
  • groin

The other major subtype of lymphoma is called Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It most often starts in lymph nodes found in your:

  • chest
  • neck
  • armpits

In extremely rare cases, a type of blood cancer called multiple myeloma can start in lymph nodes. This type of cancer develops in plasma cells, another type of white blood cell.

Metastasized cancer

Cancer that spreads to your lymph nodes from distant locations is called metastasized cancer.

Metastasized lymph node cancer develops when cells from the original tumor break away and get carried through your lymph system. When these cells reach a lymph node, they can replicate out of control and lead to a second tumor.

Cancer that spreads to the lymph nodes in your neck most commonly originates from cancer in your:

Less commonly, it may begin in non-head and neck sites such as your:

Even more rarely, cancer can spread from your central nervous system (CNS). Your CNS is made up of your brain and spinal cord.

One of the characteristic signs of lymphoma is swelling in one or more lymph nodes. However, most swollen lymph nodes aren’t caused by lymphoma.

Swollen lymph nodes often are a sign that your body is fighting an infection.

Learn more about causes of swollen lymph nodes.

Other symptoms of lymphoma commonly include:

Keep reading about head and neck symptoms of lymphoma.

Doctors usually don’t know what causes lymphoma, but they have identified some risk factors. See the table below for risk factors of Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL)Hodgkin’s lymphoma (HL)
Similar risk factors
being assigned male at birthbeing assigned male at birth
increasing age (most cases occur in people over age 60)increasing age (most cases occur in early adulthood or over age 55)
having a close relative with lymphomahaving a close relative with lymphoma
having a suppressed immune systemhaving a suppressed immune system
some infections, such as T-cell lymphotropic virus and Epstein-Barr virusEpstein-Barr virus
Additional risk factors for NHL
certain autoimmune diseases (such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or celiac disease)
exposure to benzene, radiation, and some herbicides and insecticides
being Caucasian in the United States (compared to African American or Asian American)

A doctor will likely start the diagnosis process by reviewing your personal and family medical history. They will also ask you detailed questions about your symptoms.

Then, they will perform a physical exam to feel around your throat for swollen lymph nodes. Most cases of swollen lymph nodes are not cancer and go away by themselves, but it’s a good idea to see your doctor if they do not get better within about 2 weeks.

If your doctor thinks that additional testing is needed, they may send you for a biopsy.

During a biopsy, the area around the lymph nodes is numbed, and part or all of the lymph node is removed. The incision may be guided with ultrasound or computed tomography.

Your biopsy will be tested in a laboratory for cancer. If the test is positive, you may need further tests such as blood tests and imaging.

Treatment for lymphoma depends on the type and extent of the cancer. Lymphoma is usually treated with chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Other treatments include:

Is lymph node cancer curable?

Lymphoma is often treatable and potentially curable. The chances of curing the cancer depend on which subtype of lymphoma you have. Cancers that spread from other locations are generally more difficult to cure.

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The outlook for subtypes of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma varies widely between types, but it often has a good outlook. The two most common subtypes of lymphoma and NHL are:

According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year overall relative survival rate for NHL is 74%. The overall rate is with all stages combined. This means that overall, people with NHL are 74% as likely as people without NHL to live at least 5 years.

The 5-year relative overall survival rate for Hodgkin’s lymphoma is 89%.

The 5-year relative survival rates for DLBCL and follicular lymphoma are:

StageDLBCLFollicular lymphoma
All stages65%90%

Factors associated with a good outlook include:

  • being under age 60
  • having limited-stage disease
  • having lymphoma in only one or fewer areas outside the lymph nodes
  • being able to carry out daily tasks
  • having normal levels of lactate dehydrogenase

The most common cancer that starts in lymph nodes is lymphoma. Lymphoma can often be treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. The outlook depends on which subtype you have.

Cancer can also spread to your lymph nodes from other organs. Most cancers that spread to the lymph nodes in your neck originate from your head or neck.