What do underarm lymph nodes do? Why do they swell up? And how do you know if the swelling is simply an infection – or might be cancer?
You're taking a shower, soaping up. And suddenly, underneath your arm, your fingers detect a painful, tender lump – one that wasn't there yesterday. Your mind starts to race: "Do I need to worry about this? Could it be an infected lymph node, even though I haven't felt sick? Could it be… cancer?"
What is the lymphatic system?
Your body's lymphatic system, made up of a series of small vessels, carries a clear liquid – lymph – from your body tissues to the heart. In the heart, lymph joins blood and is pumped via arteries back to the tissues. This efficient system helps drain excess liquid from tissues, and transports infection-fighting white blood cells to where they're needed.
What are lymph nodes?
Scattered along these small lymphatic vessels are up to 700 lymph nodes. These small (think...
When you had your surgery, your doctor may have removed some of the lymph nodes under the arm next to the breast that developed cancer. But breast cancer can come back in:
some of the remaining underarm (axillary) lymph nodes
lymph nodes at the base of the neck (supraclavicular)
lymph nodes just bellow the collarbone (infraclavicular)
lymph nodes under the chest wall, along the breastbone (internal mammary)
lymph nodes under the armpit on your other side (rarely)
In about 40% of women who develop a recurrence, the breast cancer has spread to the lymph nodes . If you or your doctor notices hard, round lumps forming in any of these areas near the breast that had cancer, it could be a regional recurrence. Sometimes such enlarged lymph nodes are found in a routine mammogram.
It is uncommon to have a regional recurrence in only the lymph nodes under the arm. Fewer than 5% of women treated for breast cancer have recurrence that happens this way. Instead, the cancer generally comes back in...
You may worry, "What happens if I lose lymph nodes to surgery, or my white count drops dramatically because of chemotherapy? Is my immune system weakened, and will I become vulnerable again to cancer and infection?"
Fortunately, your immune system is very resilient and flexible. Various parts can switch roles and fill in for each other. You also have a considerable reserve or surplus of immune cells and tissues. If some lymph nodes are removed, others take up the load, handling the circulation of lymph fluids and filtering out cancer cells, bacteria, and other unwanted elements. Because you have so many more white blood cells than your body requires, most of the time a reduced number of white blood cells won't put you in any serious danger. New lymphocytes and macrophages can be mobilized in a matter of minutes. However, it is important to be aware of your blood counts.
Blood counts are used to determine any possible damage chemotherapy or radiation has caused to your imm...
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