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Understanding Lymph Nodes and How They Affect Cancer
The lymph nodes act as filters, helping your body ward off infection from bacteria, viruses, and even cancer cells. Because cancer often invades lymph nodes as it spreads, checking them regularly can help your healthcare team monitor the progression of your disease and ensure your treatment is as effective as possible. Tools used to check the nodes include sentinel node mapping, needle biopsy, CT scans, and MRIs.
Your Body's Drainage System
Most people have some vague recollection of the lymph system from high school health or biology classes, but it's not something they really think much about until something goes wrong. What exactly is the lymph system, and what exactly does it do?
The lymph system includes lymph nodes (yes, those same small, roundish things that swell up and hurt when you get sick) and lymph vessels. One of the main functions of the lymph system is to collect lymph and return it to the vascular system. Lymph is excess fluid that is left over when the tissues are bathed by a clear, watery fluid that leaks out of blood vessels. Without this action, too much fluid would build up in our tissues and not enough would be left in our bloodstream.
A Built-In Security System
Drainage is vitally important, but it's not the only function of the lymph system. Remember how your lymph nodes (sometimes mistakenly called "glands") become swollen when you have an infection? That's because the lymph nodes contain immune cells that help the nodes by acting as filters or "checkpoints" to catch and get rid of anything suspicious, such as viruses, bacteria, and cancer cells.
The Lymph System and Cancer
As soon as you're diagnosed with cancer, you'll immediately discover that everyone is interested in your lymph nodes. Why? Because cancer often invades lymph nodes in the process of spreading to other parts of the body. Finding out if your cancer has spread to any lymph nodes will help your doctors "stage" your cancer to rate its severity and will help guide your treatment and determine your prognosis.
In addition, it's important to note that some cancers, called lymphomas, start in the lymph nodes.
As well as finding out if the cancer has spread to lymph nodes, it's important to know how many nodes are affected out of how many were sampled and if any "extranodal" spread has occurred. Extranodal spread refers to when the cancer spread through the walls of the node.