Definition of Adenopathy in Cancer

The Basics on Cancer in the Lymph Nodes

doctor palpating woman's lymph nodes
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Adenopathy refers to lymph nodes that become enlarged or swollen, and this can occur as a result of cancer, but more commonly it's caused by an infection. By understanding how adenopathy develops and is detected, you will gain a sense of how cancer in your lymph nodes may affect your care. 

The Lymph System

Your body has a lymph system, which is comprised of lymph vessels and nodes. Lymph vessels help balance fluid within the body.

They remove or drain waste products, viruses, and bacteria from the body's tissues. They also bring oxygen, nutrients, and infection-fighting blood cells, called white blood cells, to the body's tissues. 

The lymph nodes are organized throughout the body and are the sites through which lymph fluid passes, as the lymph vessel passes by them. There are hundreds of lymph nodes in the body, and they are grouped together. While some are located more superficially, like in the groin, the armpit, and the neck, some are located deeper within the body, like in the chest or the abdomen. The lymph nodes contain immune cells that help kill cancer cells or infections that are passing by in the lymph vessel. 

A sign that immune cells within a lymph node are fighting an infection or cancer is when they enlarge or become swollen. This is called lymphadenopathy, or adenopathy for short. 

Cancer Adenopathy

Cancer adenopathy is the enlargement or swelling of lymph nodes due to cancer.

Cancer can begin in one or more lymph nodes, as in lymphoma. Alternatively, cancer can spread to lymph nodes, like when breast cancer spreads to lymph nodes in the armpit. 

How Cancer Spreads Through the Lymph Nodes

Cancer cells may cling to the walls of a lymph vessel and then travel to a group of lymph nodes, usually ones that are close to the tumor.


How Adenopathy Is Detected

The enlargement of lymph nodes may be detected through physical examination and also by imaging scans, like a CT scan. A doctor may need to take a sample of the lymph node and look at it under a microscope to see whether there are cancer cells present. This is called a lymph node biopsy.

Will Having Adenopathy Affect My Cancer Treatment?

Having cancer cells in your lymph nodes may affect your cancer treatment, but it depends on which lymph nodes are affected and how many cancer cells they contain. For instance, lymph nodes that are swollen with cancer cells near the tumor may be able to be removed surgically. On the other hand, cancerous lymph nodes that are far away from the tumor may require chemotherapy or radiation.  

Cancer Adenopathy vs. Infection-Related Adenopathy

Classically, cancerous nodes are hard, affixed to the surrounding tissues, and are not usually painful. Benign or non-cancerous lymph nodes, such as those from infections, are usually painful and go down in size with the resolution of the infection. That being said, this is not a hard and fast rule and requires evaluation from a healthcare professional. 

Do I Have Cancer If I Have Swollen Lymph Nodes?

Adenopathy is often caused by something else, like an infection, and not cancer.

That being said, when lymph nodes are persistently swollen and/or become larger, you should seek medical attention. If you are already under the care of a physician for cancer, make sure that your doctor is aware your lymph nodes are swollen.


American Cancer Society. (2015). Lymph Nodes and Cancer. Retrieved December 24th, 2015. 

DISCLAIMER: The information in this site is for educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for personal care by a licensed physician. Please see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment of any concerning symptoms or medical condition.

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