Medically reviewed by Eric Jacobsen, MD
One symptom of lymphoma can be the development of lumps under the skin, usually in the neck, armpit, or groin. The lumps have a rubbery feel and are usually painless. Not all such lumps are a sign of lymphoma, but when they occur at these sites, it’s advisable to have them examined by a physician if they don’t go away in a week or two.
The lumps themselves are swollen lymph nodes. It’s normal for lymph nodes to swell as they fill with white blood cells as part of the body’s response to infection or cuts and scrapes. But when lymph nodes swell without an infection present, lymphoma can be one of the causes.
Lymph nodes are considered enlarged if they are more than about 1.5 cm in diameter, says Eric Jacobsen, MD, clinical director of the Adult Lymphoma Program at Dana-Farber. They often appear in groups, although there sometimes can be a single lump. They may be confined to a single area, such as the neck, or be present in multiple areas such as the neck, armpits, and/or groin. The occurrence of lumps at multiple sites makes a diagnosis of lymphoma more likely but many benign conditions can also cause enlarged lymph nodes in multiple locations.
Other possible causes
A variety of conditions other than lymphoma can give rise to similar-looking and -feeling lumps. Some turn out to be cysts, sac-like pockets within or under the skin. Some are lipomas, benign growths of fat tissue. Some are enlarged salivary glands under the chin.
Even when the lumps are swollen lymph nodes, lymphoma is not always the cause, Jacobsen notes. Such swelling can also be produced by certain autoimmune diseases, infection, inflammation, or can occur without an identifiable cause.
If the lumps are a symptom of lymphoma, the rapidity with which they arise and grow depends on the type of lymphoma that is present. In rapidly growing lymphomas, lumps can appear in a matter of days or weeks; in slower-growing types, it can take months or even years.
What to do in case of a lump
Jacobsen recommends that individuals see their doctor promptly when the lumps are accompanied by other potential symptoms of lymphoma, such as a fever, night sweats, or weight loss. If there aren’t other symptoms and the lumps aren’t growing, they should be checked by a physician within a couple weeks of their appearance.