Your lymphatic system is an essential part of your immune system and helps protect the body from disease and infection.
“The lymphatic system has three different functions,” says Sandy Pyle, RN, oncology nurse navigator at the Loran Smith Center for Cancer Support at Piedmont Athens Regional. “It maintains a balance of fluid between the blood and tissues, it is part of the immune system and circulatory system, and it promotes the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients through digestion.”
What is the lymphatic system?
The lymphatic system includes the lymph nodes, lymph channels, spleen, thymus, adenoids and tonsils. It is comprised of a vast system of vessels that run through nearly all of the body’s tissues and circulates lymph throughout the body.
Lymph is a fluid comprised of white blood cells and intestinal fluid called chyle, which contains fats and proteins. It travels through your organs and tissues to cleanse them, collect waste material and unwanted substances outside the bloodstream, and then drains through the lymphatic system.
The lymph nodes are small, soft and round structures located in clusters throughout the body, particularly in the groin, armpit, neck, chest and abdomen. They act as filters that trap viruses, bacteria, cancer cells and other unwanted substances. These substances are then flushed out of the body.
When the immune system detects an infection, the lymph nodes will produce white blood cells to fight the foreign material. This build-up of lymph fluid, bacteria or immune system cells can cause the lymph nodes to swell. Sometimes, you may be able to feel them under your arms or in your neck or groin. Other times, the lymph nodes may become swollen because they are infected.
How cancer affects the lymph nodes
Cancer can affect the lymph nodes in one of two ways:
It may begin in the lymph nodes (lymphoma)
It may spread to the lymph nodes from other parts of the body
Sometimes cancer cells break off from the original or primary tumor and spread to other parts of the body via the bloodstream or lymphatic system. Cancer cells are often killed before they can start growing elsewhere, but sometimes they can settle in a new part of the body and develop into tumors. This is known as metastasis.
“Since the lymphatic system is located throughout the body and filters fluid from the tissues, it’s one of the first things the medical team looks at when making a cancer diagnosis,” Pyle explains. “If any cancer cells were picked up in the lymphatic system, that will determine the type of treatment you get.”
Pyle says if you have surgery as part of your cancer treatment plan, your surgeon will either biopsy or remove lymph nodes near the tumor site and send them for testing during surgery. If they come back as positive for cancer cells, the surgeon may remove them.
If the cancer cells have spread to the lymph nodes, this means the cancer could be more likely to return after surgery. This information can inform your course of treatment. Sometimes, only surgery to remove the primary tumor and nearby lymph nodes is needed. But if the cancer cells have spread to distant lymph nodes or other parts of the body, treatment like chemotherapy or radiation may be required.
Cancer treatment and lymphedema
“Lymphedema is something that is frequently discussed in cancer treatment, especially in patients with breast cancer, head and neck cancers, cancers that involve treatment in the pelvic region (such as prostate, colon or uterine cancer), melanoma, or lymphoma,” says Pyle.
When lymph nodes are removed or damaged through radiation therapy, the body may have a hard time draining lymph fluid, which can result in fluid build-up and swelling in nearby extremities. This is known as lymphedema. While there’s no cure for lymphedema, there are treatment options.
How to keep your lymphatic system healthy
“Our immune system plays a big part in fighting cancer,” she says. “Keeping your lymphatic system healthy allows it to kill off and filter out foreign cells, like cancer cells, bacteria and viruses.”
You can support your lymphatic health through lifestyle choices like:
Exercise. While blood is pumped by the heart, lymph fluid is squeezed through the vessels during physical activity. “One of the greatest things you can do to keep your lymphatic system healthy is exercise,” says Pyle. “It helps the lymph fluid move through your system.”
Deep breathing exercises. Moving the diaphragm muscle through deep breathing also helps fluids circulate, she says.
Hydration. “Hydration with water is crucial,” says Pyle. “When you become dehydrated, very little fluid will flow through your tissues and things can become stagnant. You want to keep the fluids flowing through your system to filter out toxins.”
Learn more about cancer prevention, wellness and treatment.