Symptoms - Swollen Lymph Nodes

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: February 2018

A common symptom of various types of blood cancer is enlarged lymph nodes.1 Enlarged lymph nodes can be felt as swollen or firm lumps under the skin. They may also be visible to the eye. Sometimes, people may call swollen lymph nodes "swollen glands," particularly in reference to the lymph nodes in the neck, however, lymph nodes are not glands.2

What are lymph nodes?

Lymph nodes are bean-shaped structures that are part of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is part of the immune system that carries fluid through the body (called lymph). In addition to lymph nodes, the lymphatic system is made up of lymphatic vessels, collecting ducts, and several organs, including the spleen, thymus, and tonsils. The main functions of the lymphatic system are to eliminate damaged cells from the body and to defend the body against potential infection and cancer.2,3

The function of the lymph nodes is to filter the lymph before it goes back to the bloodstream. While lymph nodes are found throughout the body, there are some areas where a cluster of lymph nodes are found, such as in the neck (cervical lymph nodes), in the armpits (axillary lymph nodes), and in the groin (inguinal lymph nodes). Lymph nodes contain many white blood cells, particularly lymphocytes and macrophages, which are key components of the immune system and help the body fight off infection and remove damaged cells, like cancer cells.2,3

Are swollen lymph nodes a symptom of blood cancer?

Some blood cancers start in the lymph nodes, like lymphomas. Other blood cancers may spread to the lymph nodes. When the lymph nodes contain a large number of cancerous cells, they can become swollen or enlarged.1,4

Other symptoms of blood cancer

Blood cancers can cause several general symptoms. Because these general symptoms may be caused by blood cancer or many other conditions, it's important to have these or other symptoms evaluated by a healthcare professional to get a proper diagnosis. Other general symptoms of blood cancer can include:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Night sweats
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Feeling of fullness in the abdomen
  • Aches in the arms, legs, or joints

The cancerous cells in blood cancer can crowd out healthy blood cells, including red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. When the healthy blood cells are negatively impacted, blood cancers can cause additional symptoms, such as:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or feeling lightheaded
  • Headache
  • Repeated infections, or infections that won't go away
  • Fevers, especially without an obvious cause
  • Frequent bruises, especially without a clear reason
  • Easily bleeding, such as from cuts, from the gums, or frequent nose bleeds
  • Small, pinhead-sized red spots on the skin (called "petechiae")1,5

It's important to remember that not everyone with blood cancer experiences all these symptoms. There are many different types of blood cancer, each with its own unique list of symptoms, and each individual has a unique experience and combination of symptoms.

Diagnosing blood cancer

To diagnose blood cancer, doctors may use several tests, including a physical exam, medical history, blood tests (like a complete blood count, blood chemistry, blood smear, and blood clotting tests), bone marrow aspiration and biopsy, lymph node biopsy, lumbar puncture, and imaging tests (like a chest x-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or ultrasound). Some of these tests are also used to rule out other conditions.1

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