Lymph nodes are key components of the body’s immune system. These small, bean-shaped capsules are located throughout the body and are responsible for filtering lymph fluid and removing harmful substances. They also contain immune cells, which help fight infections by attacking germs and bacteria carried through this fluid.
Typically, lymph nodes are soft and undetectable. However, when activated to fight infections, they will enlarge. In most instances, this swelling is normal and will subside once the body clears the virus. In rare cases, these lumps can be the first sign of cancer.
“Feeling a lump on your neck is not a reason to panic,” says Jochen Lorch, MD, MS, director of the Thyroid Cancer Center at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center. “While most lumps are benign, it’s still important to report persistent lumps to your doctor.”
What does a cancerous lymph node feel like?
Cancerous lymph nodes can occur anywhere on the neck and are typically described as firm, painless, and sometimes may be immovable. A lump will form when a cancer cell infiltrates the capsule and multiplies. If left unchecked, the cancer can break out of the lymph node and spread to the surrounding tissue.
In terms of size, these lumps can range anywhere from less than one centimeter (less than half an inch) to several inches in diameter. While you may only notice a single lump, it is not uncommon to find them clumped together, spread out along one side of the neck, or even along both sides of the neck depending on the location of a possible tumor.
For example, if the original tumor developed near the midline, such as in the tongue base area, typically both sides of the neck may be affected. What makes this tricky, however, is that infections may also present with enlarged lymph nodes on both sides of the neck.
Cancerous lumps can also fluctuate in size; however, they generally do not disappear only to reappear weeks later. If you experience this, Lorch encourages you to see a doctor because while it is likely not cancer, it could be a warning sign for something else.
What cancer(s) can a neck lump be related to?
The reason it is important to monitor lumps, and inform your doctor of any changes, is because generally a lump is the only symptom of head and neck cancer that a patient may experience. It’s important to remember that these symptoms may also be caused by other, less serious conditions.
Make sure to consult with either you doctor or dentist if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty swallowing
- A persistent sore throat
- Earaches or a loss of hearing on just one side
- Fluid behind the eardrum
- A change or hoarseness in your voice
While 80 to 90 percent of reported thyroid lumps are not cancerous, it’s important to inform your health care provider if you notice any changes.
Patients with thyroid cancer may also feel a lump in their neck. The thyroid gland sits at the base of the neck (below the Adam’s apple), and if it becomes cancerous, it may cause one nodule or area to enlarge.