A diagnosis of mesothelioma can be daunting. You may feel bombarded with medical terminology and it can be difficult to take everything in. With any cancer diagnosis lymph nodes are likely to be spoken about, but what are lymph nodes and how important are they?

What is a lymph node?

Lymph nodes are part of the lymphatic system and adaptive immune system. There are hundreds of nodes present throughout the body. They are linked by lymphatic vessels. The nodes are like a network, collecting fluid, waste material, viruses and bacteria in the tissues of the body and are a vital part of the immune system.

When you have an infection, your lymph nodes in certain areas may become enlarged. For example, if you have an ear infection the nodes near the ear may swell as they work harder to filter out the infection.

Cancer in lymph nodes

Cancer can spread to the lymph nodes and spread throughout the lymphatic system. When this happens it can mean that surgery may not be an option to remove the cancer.

Pleural mesothelioma uses the TNM system for staging (describing how progressed the cancer is). T relates to the size and location of the mesothelioma, N relates to whether the lymph nodes have been affected and M relates to metastasis or whether the mesothelioma has spread to other parts of the body.

If the lymph nodes close to the initial tumour have been affected, it is likely that the cancer has reached stage 3. If lymph nodes further away are affected it will have reached stage 4. Sadly, this is the most advanced stage of cancer.

How do they know if lymph nodes are involved?

Your treating medical team will need to know how advanced your mesothelioma is so they can give you all your treatment options. To establish whether the cancer has spread to your lymph nodes a positron emission tomography (PET) scan will be done. You will be injected with a slightly radioactive sugar and any cancer cells will absorb this quicker than healthy cells. The PET scan is then done and this shows where the radiation has been absorbed, thus showing where the cancer cells are.

What if mesothelioma has spread to my lymph nodes?

Early diagnosis of mesothelioma is key and gives a patient more treatment options. Surgery is more likely to be successful when the tumours are found early and have not spread. However, there are options if mesothelioma has spread to the lymph nodes. Whilst surgery may not be feasible, chemotherapy and immunotherapy may be offered.

Every diagnosis of mesothelioma is different. Your treating medical team will be able to fully advise you of all your treatment options.

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