Can Swollen Lymph Nodes Be a Symptom of Breast Cancer?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Swollen lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy) can be associated with breast cancer. Lymph node swelling usually means the body is fighting a foreign invader, like an infection or an accumulation of abnormal cells.

Most of the time, swollen lymph nodes are a symptom of an infection. However, swollen lymph nodes can be a sign of cancer as well. Learn more about lymphadenopathy, why it’s a symptom of breast cancer, and what to do about it.

Woman in bathroom feeling armpit for swollen lymph node

Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez / Getty Images

What Is Lymphadenopathy (Swollen Lymph Nodes)?

The lymphatic system helps filter and combat infections and abnormal cells that can lead to problems like cancer. It is a network of tissues, vessels, and larger hubs of immune cells (lymph nodes).

When your immune system detects an abnormality or a foreign invader, it becomes activated and sends signals to cells within the lymphatic system. Immune cells called lymphocytes begin to multiply to fight the problem. This leads to swelling of the lymph nodes, also called lymphadenopathy.

Lymph nodes are small, round clusters of tissue typically found in the neck, armpits, groin, and deeper inside the chest and abdomen. A person can often feel these swollen areas, and sometimes they become painful and inflamed.

Most of the time, lymphadenopathy is not something to worry about; it will go away on its own. Swollen lymph nodes also can suggest an infection in a particular area. One of the most common places to detect swollen lymph nodes is in the neck, which is usually due to a throat infection.

Medications That Can Lead To Lymphadenopathy

Certain medications can lead to lymphadenopathy. Examples include: 

Is Lymphadenopathy a Symptom of Breast Cancer?

Swollen lymph nodes found in the armpits or along the chest wall can indicate breast cancer. The lymphatic system is a vast network spread throughout the body. So, when a person develops cancer, abnormal (cancerous) cells can travel throughout the lymphatic system, spreading to the lymph nodes and the rest of the body.

The lymph nodes become swollen as the cancer cells multiply and as the immune system attempts to fight the cancerous cells.

Most of the time, swollen lymph nodes do not suggest cancer. Factors that indicate lymphadenopathy is caused by cancer include:

  • Lymph node swelling that lasts longer than two weeks
  • New lymphadenopathy in older people
  • Associated symptoms such as night sweats and weight loss
  • Swollen lymph nodes that are painless, hard, irregular in shape, rubbery in texture, not movable

Breast Cancer Screening

The U. S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends breast cancer screening for women. They suggest females between ages 50 and 74 get a mammogram every two years to detect breast cancer as early as possible. Some females at higher risk for breast cancer might need to start screening earlier and should discuss whether this is necessary with a healthcare provider.

Males are generally not screened but should see a healthcare provider if they develop any symptoms of breast cancer. Transgender and intersex people should discuss appropriate screening with a healthcare provider.

Swollen lymph nodes are not the only sign of breast cancer. If a person detects swollen lymph nodes in the armpit, they should also be assessed for other symptoms of breast cancer, including:

  • A lump in the breast
  • Thickening or swelling of a part of the breast
  • Redness, irritation, or dimpling of any skin parts of the breast, including the nipple area
  • Discharge or blood that comes from the nipple, especially if the person is not breastfeeding
  • Pain in the breast or around a lump

Treatment and Management of Lymphadenopathy

The treatment for lymphadenopathy that is due to breast cancer mainly involves treating the cancer itself. Swollen lymph nodes are your body’s reaction to abnormal cells or cancer cells themselves multiplying inside a lymph node. The best way to treat the swelling is to treat the cancer. 

Biopsy Site

Swollen lymph nodes are sometimes used as a biopsy site to determine whether cancer is present. In a biopsy, a healthcare provider will use a small needle to obtain tissue to be analyzed for cancerous cells.

Treatments for breast cancer depend on whether cancer has spread and the characteristics of the tumor cells. Treatments include:

  • Surgical removal of the tumor and associated lymph nodes
  • Radiation therapy: Treatment using radiation to kill cancer cells
  • Chemotherapy: Treatment using drugs that attack actively dividing cells
  • Immunotherapy: Treatment that uses the immune system or products of the immune system to inhibit or kill cancer
  • Targeted therapy: Treatment based on characteristics of the tumor cells

Lymphadenopathy can often be painful if it becomes substantial since it can compress other structures and nerves in the area. Some people also develop numbness and tingling near the swollen lymph nodes.

Over-the-counter medicines like Tylenol (acetaminophen), Advil (ibuprofen), or Aleve (naproxen) can help to treat the pain. When an area is very swollen, a cold compress might also help.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Swollen lymph nodes are usually benign (noncancerous). This is often the case when you have an infection or if you are a young person without risk factors for cancer.

You do not always need to seek medical attention immediately when you detect lymphadenopathy. However, the infection associated with lymphadenopathy can sometimes be severe and a reason to seek medical attention. If you are ever concerned, you should speak to a healthcare provider. 

Lymphadenopathy that does not seem to be associated with an infection does not guarantee a cancer diagnosis. Approximately 1% of cases of lymphadenopathy seen by a primary care provider are cancerous. It is important to consider other causes, including autoimmune diseases such as sarcoidosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus.

You should seek further care if you have lymphadenopathy that has been present for more than two weeks. Your healthcare provider will assess the potential causes of the lymphadenopathy and may conduct additional testing.


Lymph nodes are areas in the body where immune system cells multiply to fight infection and abnormal cells. They can also be areas where cancer cells accumulate before spreading to the rest of the body.

Swollen lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy) are usually benign but can be a sign of breast cancer when the nodes are swollen in the armpit or near the chest wall. It is important to seek medical attention for lymphadenopathy that has been present for several weeks.

Lymphadenopathy that is due to breast cancer will clear up once the cancer is treated. Over-the-counter pain relievers and a cool compress are ways to control lymphadenopathy pain.

A Word From Verywell

It can be concerning when you detect swelling anywhere in the body. If you are worried that swollen lymph nodes are indicating cancer, you should speak with a healthcare provider. But it is important to remember that lymphadenopathy is usually benign and not due to cancer.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. West H, Jin J. Lymph nodes and lymphadenopathy in cancer. JAMA Oncol. 2016;2(7):971. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2015.3509

  2. Lymphangiomatotis and Gorham's Disease Alliance. The lymphatic system.

  3. Gaddey HL, Riegel AM. Unexplained lymphadenopathy: evaluation and differential diagnosis. Am Fam Physician. 2016;94(11):896-903.

  4. Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Lymphadenopathy.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breast cancer.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How is breast cancer treated

By Christine Zink, MD
Dr. Christine Zink, MD, is a board-certified emergency medicine with expertise in the wilderness and global medicine. She completed her medical training at Weill Cornell Medical College and residency in emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She utilizes 15-years of clinical experience in her medical writing.