The most common symptom of lymphoma is the development of lumps under the skin. The lumps themselves are swollen lymph nodes, and they typically appear in the neck, armpit, or groin.
Not all such lumps are a sign of lymphoma. It is normal for lymph nodes to swell as they fill with white blood cells as part of the body’s response to infections, cuts, and scrapes. However, when lymph nodes swell without an infection present, lymphoma can be one of the causes. When lumps occur in the neck, armpit, or groin, and don’t go away in a week or two, it’s important to have them examined by a physician.
What does a swollen lymph node feel like?
Swollen lymph nodes are often painless, moveable, and have a soft, “rubbery” feel to them, says Eric Jacobsen, MD, clinical director of the Adult Lymphoma Program at Dana-Farber. Lymph nodes can swell for a variety of reasons and are considered to be enlarged if they are bigger than 1.5 centimeters in diameter, or slightly larger than a pea. Typically, lymph nodes that are enlarged due to lymphoma are much bigger and can grow to be the size of a grape (or larger).
Can I tell if a lymph node is cancerous by feeling it?
It is impossible to tell if a lymph node is cancerous by simply feeling it. Any persistent, concerning lumps should be examined by a medical professional. During this appointment, your doctor will conduct a comprehensive medical exam that includes physically inspecting accessible lymph nodes, as well as the size of organs that can be felt on a physical exam (such as the spleen and liver).
Following this examination, your doctor may want to perform a biopsy of a swollen lymph node. This biopsy is the only way to conclusively determine if the lymph node is cancerous.
What are the signs that someone has a cancerous lymph node?
Most swollen lymph nodes are not cancerous and are a result of a benign condition. While it is impossible to determine if a lymph node is cancerous without a biopsy, if you are experiencing the following symptoms, you should have the lump(s) examined by a licensed medical professional:
- Accompanying symptoms: lumps accompanied by additional symptoms such as fevers, night sweats, and weight loss.
- Multiple locations: lumps that appear in multiple locations. Common places include the neck, under the jaw, armpit, and groin.
- Multiple lumps: cancerous lymph nodes often appear in groups (although some patients may have a single lump).
- Size: lumps that are greater than 1.5 cm in diameter.
- Persistent: lumps that do not disappear within a week or two.
Remember, this is not a complete list of symptoms, and some lymphoma patients might not have any symptoms at all. You know your body better than anyone, and if you notice something concerning, be sure to alert a medical professional.
How quickly will a cancerous lymph node grow?
A swollen lymph node can appear seemingly overnight, but in reality, it may have been growing slowly and then became visible.
If the lymph node is cancerous, the rapidity with which the lump arises and grows 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.
Remember: Not all lumps are a sign of lymphoma.
What are other possible causes of a lump?
Most of the time a swollen lymph node is not a cause for concern. A variety of conditions, other than lymphoma, can give rise to similar-looking and -feeling lumps. Some turn out to be cysts, which are 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 a result of swollen lymph nodes, lymphoma is not always the cause. Such swelling can also be produced by certain autoimmune diseases, infection, inflammation, or can occur without an identifiable cause.
What should I do if I feel a lump?
Jacobsen recommends that individuals promptly see a licensed medical professional 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.
About the Medical Reviewer
Dr. Jacobsen received his MD from the University of Connecticut School of Medicine in 1999. He completed postgraduate training in Internal Medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital, followed by a fellowship in Medical Oncology and Hematology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He joined the division of Hematologic Malignancies in 2005.