Cancer can begin anywhere in the body when harmful cells multiply out of control and crowd out normal, healthy cells.

The type of cancer — such as breast, lung, or colon cancer — indicates where the cancer began. However, as the condition progresses, cancerous cells can spread to other parts of the body and grow into new tumors. This is referred to as metastasis.

Cancer cells can travel through the lymph system after breaking away from the initial tumor, leading them to the lymph nodes.

Lymph nodes are oval-shaped organs found in numerous parts of the body, including the armpits, neck, and groin. As a part of the immune system, they attack viruses by filtering lymph before sending the fluid back through the lymphatic system.

Cancer appearing in the lymph nodes is an indicator of how the cancer is spreading. If cancer cells are only found in the lymph nodes near the original tumor, it may indicate the cancer is in an earlier stage and has not spread far beyond its primary area.

On the other hand, if your doctor finds the cancer cells have traveled to lymph nodes far from the initial tumor, the cancer may be spreading at a faster rate and could be in a later stage.

Additionally, it’s important to know how many cancer cells have traveled to the respective lymph node. If there’s visible or palpable cancer in lymph nodes, or the cancer has grown outside the lymph node walls, the cancer may have progressed further and may require a different treatment plan.

If cancer cells have spread to your lymph nodes (or beyond your lymph nodes to another part of the body), symptoms may include:

You may not experience noticeable symptoms of cancer cells spreading to your lymph nodes, so a diagnosis from your doctor is important. They can determine if the cancer is isolated to one region or has metastasized further.

Doctors often classify the stages of cancer using the TNM system:

  • T (tumor) refers to the size or extent of the tumor
  • N (number) refers to the number of lymph nodes that contain cancer
  • M (metastasis) refers to the cancer spreading to distant parts of the body

Diagnostic procedures — such as a biopsy or imaging tests — will help your doctor determine the extent of the cancer and the number of lymph nodes impacted.

Treatment will be influenced by:

  • how much cancer is in your lymph nodes
  • if the cancer has spread far beyond the original location

Cancer cells that have spread into lymph nodes — whether near the original location or elsewhere — may indicate the cancer is progressing.

It’s important to get a diagnosis from your doctor. They can determine the extent to which the cancer has potentially spread and can recommend an appropriate treatment plan.