Understanding Swollen Lymph Nodes in Breast Cancer

During the course of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, lymph nodes near the breasts can become enlarged. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four female breast cancers spread to the lymph nodes, but cancer spread is not the only reason for lymph node swelling (also known as lymphadenopathy).

Whatever the cause, swollen lymph nodes can raise a multitude of questions when you have breast cancer. It’s important to know what else could be causing this symptom, and to check in with your healthcare provider so they can help you get to the bottom of it.

Lymph Nodes and What They Do

The lymphatic (or lymph) system is an essential part of the immune system and is made up of a network of lymph nodes and lymphatic vessels, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). These look similar to blood vessels, but instead of blood, they contain a clear, watery substance called lymphatic fluid.

“Lymph nodes act as filters for lymphatic fluid, which carries waste products, foreign substances, and immune cells throughout our body. They are essential because they help detect and fight infections and diseases, including breast cancer,” says Corey Speers, MD, PhD, radiation oncologist at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center and member of the developmental therapeutics program at the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center (CCCC).

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