Lymph nodes and the Spread of Cancer

Lymph Nodes and Cancer – What is the lymph system?

Our bodies have a network of lymph vessels and lymph nodes. (Lymph is pronounced limf.) This network is a part of the body’s immune system. It collects fluid, waste material, and other things (like viruses and bacteria) that are in the body tissues, outside the bloodstream.

Lymph vessels are a lot like the veins that collect and carry blood through the body. But instead of carrying blood, these vessels carry the clear watery fluid called lymph.

How does cancer spread to lymph nodes?

Cancer can spread from where it started (the primary site) to other parts of the body.

When cancer cells break away from a tumor, they can travel to other areas of the body through either the bloodstream or the lymph system. Cancer cells can travel through the bloodstream to reach distant organs. If they travel through the lymph system, the cancer cells may end up in lymph nodes. Either way, most of the escaped cancer cells die or are killed before they can start growing somewhere else. But one or two might settle in a new area, begin to grow, and form new tumors. This spread of cancer to a new part of the body is called metastasis.

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Dr. Stegall’s comments: The lymphatic system is a very important aspect of the body’s immune system, but unfortunately most doctors do not recognize this. If you have cancer, then it is safe to assume that your lymphatic system is not functioning properly. This is true whether you have stage 1 cancer or stage 4 cancer. Because the lymphatic system is responsible for recognizing and eliminating harmful substances in the body, we must be vigilant about improving lymphatic health.

One key therapy I use in my office is known as lymph drainage therapy (LDT). With LDT, patients work with my specialist who has a thorough understanding of the lymphatic system and how it should flow. Using specialized equipment, she locates lymph congestion and helps restore imbalances. These sessions typically last one hour, and occur twice per week. I have found this to be an extremely valuable tool in our cancer-fighting tool chest.

For optimal lymph health, it is also important to drink plenty of water and also to engage in regular physical activity. Any activity where the whole body is moving, such as jumping on a rebounder, helps stimulate the lymphatic system. This is no substitute for lymph drainage therapy, however.


How cancer tricks the lymphatic system into spreading tumours

Swollen lymph nodes are often the earliest sign of metastatic spread of cancer cells. Now cancer researchers and immunologists at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet have discovered how cancer cells can infiltrate the lymphatic system by ‘disguising’ themselves as immune cells (white blood cells). The researchers hope that this finding, which is published in the scientific journal Oncogene, will inform the development of new drugs.

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The main reason why people die of cancer is that the cancer cells spread to form daughter tumours, or metastases, in vital organs, such as the lungs and liver. A route frequently used by cancer cells for dissemination is the lymphatic system. Upon entering lymphatic vessels, they migrate to nearby lymph nodes, which then swell up, and from there, to other organs via the blood. The details of how and why cancer cells use the lymphatic system for spread are, however, relatively unknown.

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Dr. Stegall’s comments: Cancer cells have learned how to masquerade inside the body, so that the immune system cannot detect them. The finding that cancer cells can disguise themselves as white blood cells is not surprising. However, this illustrates the need for proper lymphatic flow and drainage. Without proper flow of lymph through the body’s lymphatic system, cancer cells will have an opportunity to congregate inside lymph nodes. If we are vigilant about lymphatic health, then the chances of these cancer cells masquerading as white blood cells becoming “stuck” in lymph nodes are much lower.


Staging and Grading Cancer

How do cancers grow and spread? If left untreated, cancers often go through three stages:

1. Local growth and damage to nearby tissues – Cancer cells multiply quickly. A cancerous (malignant) tumour is a lump or growth of tissue made up from cancer cells. Cancerous tumours normally first develop in one site – the primary tumour. However, to get larger, a tumour has to develop a blood supply to obtain oxygen and nourishment for the new and dividing cells. In fact, a tumour would not grow bigger than the size of a pinhead if it did not also develop a blood supply. Cancer cells make chemicals that stimulate tiny blood vessels to grow around them which branch off from the existing blood vessels. This ability for cancer cells to stimulate blood vessels to grow is called angiogenesis.

Cancer cells also have the ability to push through or between normal cells. So, as they divide and multiply, cancer cells invade and damage the local surrounding tissue.

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Dr. Stegall’s comments: It is important for patients to understand the staging system. Unfortunately, most doctors spend little to no time explaining these details to patients. Knowing the stage, and what it means, is essential to being empowered as a patient. We have years of data showing how each stage responds to standard treatments, and this is important information because it can help with treatment planning. For example, if we are dealing with a type of cancer which responds very well to conventional treatment, then that is what I will recommend. In contrast, a cancer which does not typically respond well to conventional treatment, or which has the high likelihood of causing serious side effects, I will often recommend alternative approaches.

Regardless of the stage, I feel that an integrative approach to cancer is best. We typically need to incorporate therapies from the Western/allopathic model as well as the natural/alternative model, and do this in a way which is as personalized for the patient as possible. Our first job is “do no harm.” Our second job is to meet the patient’s wants and needs in the most effective manner possible. I feel that integrative oncology gives us the best opportunity for that.