Brenda Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA
Lymph node cancers are tumors of the lymphatic system, which is part of the body's immune system. Also known as lymphomas, these cancers are made of infection-fighting cells called lymphocytes that multiply uncontrollably. They collect in lymph nodes and other parts of the body to form tumors. Lymphomas are divided into two categories: Hodgkin lymphomas and non-Hodgkin lymphomas. Enlarged lymph nodes, night sweats, fevers, unexplained weight loss and poor energy are common early warning signs of lymph node cancer. Lymphomas may also cause other symptoms, depending on where they are located in the body.
Enlarged Lymph Nodes
The presence of enlarged lymph nodes -- known as lymphadenopathy -- is one of the most common warning signs of lymph node cancer. Lymph nodes that are enlarged from cancer are usually, but not always, painless. According to Merck Manual Professional Version, nodes containing Hodgkin lymphoma cells sometimes feel sore immediately after drinking alcohol. Although the reason for this is not known, it is a clue that may help diagnose the cancer at an early stage. Enlarged lymph nodes close to the skin's surface may be felt under the jaw, above the collarbones, in the under-arm areas and in the groin. Lymph nodes that are enlarged in only one location are often caused by an infection in the area. When enlarged lymph nodes occur in more than one area of the body, lymphoma is a more likely possibility.
Night Sweats and Fevers
Drenching sweats that occur during sleep are known as night sweats. They are caused by a high fever and may be found in many conditions, including lymph node cancers. Night sweats are especially common in people with Hodgkin lymphoma, although some non-Hodgkin lymphoma sufferers experience them as well. At times, night sweats are the only symptom noticed by a person with lymphoma, according to a March 2003 article in "American Family Physician."
Persistent or recurring fevers are a common sign of lymph node cancer. These fevers are generally due to the cancer itself, although people with lymphoma are more susceptible than usual to developing infections. Hodgkin lymphoma may cause fevers that appear in an unusual pattern. Called Pel-Ebstein fevers, several days of high fever alternate with a normal or even less than normal temperature that lasts for days or weeks. Chills and night sweats may accompany any fever caused by lymph node cancers.
Weight Loss and Poor Energy
Like many cancers, unexplained weight loss is a frequent sign of lymph node cancer. Lack of energy is also common, especially if the cancer cells invade the bone marrow and produce anemia by interfering with the production of red blood cells.
Chest Pain, Cough and Shortness of Breath
Enlarged lymph nodes deep within the chest can cause chest pain, cough and difficulty breathing as they press on the lungs. Coughing and shortness of breath can also result from lymphoma cancer cells invading the lung tissue itself.
Generalized itchiness is common with Hodgkin lymphoma. Enlarged lymph nodes can block blood flow in the superior vena cava -- the large vein that brings blood from the upper body back to the heart. The blockage produces swelling and red-purple discoloration of the face, neck, upper chest and arms. Called superior vena cava syndrome, this condition is more common in non-Hodgkin lymphoma than in Hodgkin lymphoma. Swelling of the legs and feet may occur when cancer in groin lymph nodes prevents lymph fluid drainage from the legs. Cancer cells invading the spleen, liver or stomach can produce a full or bloated feeling in the abdomen.
Reviewed by: Mary D. Daley, M.D.