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.
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
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
Your lymphatic system is made up of:
- 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
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
The most common category of lymphoma is called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It is the
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma most often starts in your:
The other major subtype of lymphoma is called Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It
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 birth||being assigned male at birth|
|increasing age (most cases occur in people over ||increasing age (most cases occur in early adulthood or |
|having a close relative with lymphoma||having a close relative with lymphoma|
|having a suppressed immune system||having a suppressed immune system|
|some infections, such as T-cell lymphotropic virus and Epstein-Barr virus||Epstein-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:
- active surveillance
- stem cell transplant
- targeted therapies
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.
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
The 5-year relative overall survival rate for Hodgkin’s lymphoma is
The 5-year relative survival rates for DLBCL and follicular lymphoma are:
- 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.