Lymph node cancer (also known as lymphoma) accounts for five percent of cancer cases diagnosed annually in the United States. Because lymph node cancer can be cured, especially if the disease is diagnosed in its early stages, seeing your doctor for a proper diagnosis is important if you start developing symptoms of this condition.
Lymph Node Locations
Lymph nodes exist throughout the body because the lymphatic system is responsible for draining fluid away from body tissue and returning it to the blood. Lymph nodes produce lymph, the clear fluid that runs through the lymphatic system. Major lymph node locations include the neck, the armpits and the groin.
Types of Lymphoma
Lymph node cancer is divided into two classifications:
- Hodgkin’s lymphoma: a condition characterized by Reed-Sternberg cells (highly distinctive large cells that are especially susceptible to collagen detecting dyes)
- non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma: a condition characterized by cancerous cells that grow out of B-cells and/or T-cells.
Of the two, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is the most common form of the disease. The American Cancer Society estimated an individual has a one in 50 chance of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymph node cancer over his or her lifetime.
The age of onset between the two types of lymph node cancer differs. While Hodgkin’s lymphoma tends to develop in people between the ages of 15 to 35 and between 50 and 70 years of age, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma usually affects adults (although children occasionally develop the disease).
Risk Factors for Lymph Node Cancer
Unfortunately, the cause of lymph node cancer is unknown in most cases. Although people with compromised immune systems sometimes develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the exact mechanism that triggers lymph node cancer remains unknown.
Lymphoma symptoms vary according to the type and location of lymph node cancer an individual develops. For Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the first sign is usually a swollen lymph node at any of the lymph node locations. Although tender to the touch, patients dont experience any lymph node pain.
A number of other symptoms may accompany the swollen lymph node associated with Hodgkins lymphoma, including:
- lack of appetite
- night sweats
- weight loss.
Although there is no lymph node pain, there may be pain in the neck or flanks (the area of the body between the bottom rib and the upper thigh). People with Hodgkin’s lymph node cancer may also experience hair loss, skin flushing, excessive sweating, finger or toe clubbing and an enlarged spleen.
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma symptoms also include swollen lymph nodes. Like the Hodgkins form of this condition, although lymph node pain is not present, the swollen lymph node is tender. Additional symptoms include:
- night sweats
- weight loss.
Patients may also experience shortness of breath if the swollen lymph node is in the neck. Other possible symptoms include nausea, vomiting, constipation and loss of appetite.
Lymph Node Removal and Diagnosis
A lymph node biopsy or the complete removal of the lymph node may be required to diagnose lymphoma. Once removed under anesthetic the questionable lymph node tissue is then examined for microscopic signs of cancer.
If the biopsy detects Reed-Sternberg cells, the lymph node cancer is Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Lack of these highly distinctive cells means that a person suffers from the non-Hodgkins form of lymphoma.
In addition to lymph node removal, lymph node cancer may be diagnosed by bone marrow biopsy. Blood tests, X-rays, CT scans and PET scans can also help doctors diagnose this condition.
Treating Lymph Node Cancer
Treatment of lymph node cancer depends on the type of lymphoma with which a person is diagnosed, as well as the location of the affected lymph node. Chemotherapy (high doses of cancer-killing medication) is commonly used to treat lymph node cancer.
An immunosuppressant drug called rituximab (sold under the brand names RituxanÂ® and MabTheraÂ®) is also often used to treat high-grade non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In some cases, patients may receive radioimmunotherapy, a mixture of radiation therapy and antibodies that help the immune system kill cancer cells.
Hodgkin’s lymphoma treatment depends on the stage of the cancer. Early stage lymph node cancer (stages I and II) may be treated with radiation therapy, chemotherapy or both. Advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma is treated either with heavier doses of chemotherapy or a combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
Lymph Node Cancer Prognosis
Caught in its earliest stages, the outlook for Hodgkin’s lymph node cancer is quite positive. The survival rate for early stage Hodgkin’s lymphoma is 80 percent for 10 years or more, with appropriate treatment. Although advanced Hodgkin’s disease has a higher possibility of fatality, five-year survival rates average around 60 percent.
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma outcomes are more complicated. Low-grade non-Hodgkin’s lymph node cancer does not respond to chemotherapy and progresses more slowly than Hodgkins lymphoma. In fact, it can take up to 10 years before this disease worsens.
High-grade non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is treated with chemotherapy. Prognosis depends largely on whether the cancer responds to chemotherapy medication. If the lymph node cancer does not respond to chemotherapy, the disease advances rapidly, proving fatal in a short time period.
Cancer Treatment Centers of America (n.d.). Lymph node cancer. Retrieved June 18, 2007 from the Cancer Treatment Centers of America Web site:www.cancercenter.com/lymph-node-cancer.htm.
Pulsen, E.; Grinsted, P. (2005). Hodgkin’s disease (lymph node cancer). Retrieved June 18, 2007 from the Net Doctor Web site:www.netdoctor.co.uk/diseases/facts/hodgkinsdisease.htm.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2007). Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Retrieved June 18, 2007 from the NLM Web site:www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000580.htm.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2007). Non-hodgkin’s lymphoma. Retrieved June 18, 2007 from the NLM Web site:www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000581.htm.