Breast Cancer in Lymph Nodes

When you have breast cancer in your lymph nodes, the cancer has spread beyond the breast tissue. Breast cancer is most often genetically linked and caused by the growth of abnormal breast cells. In normal cells, they die off and new cells grow. Cancer cells just keep growing mutated cells that form into tumors. This article will explain how breast cancer invades the lymph nodes and spreads to other tissues and organs.

What does Breast Cancer in Lymph Nodes Mean?

Breast cancer tumors usually begin in the milk ducts or fibrous tissues that make up the breasts. Cancerous breast tumors invade healthy tissues, and then spread beyond breast tissue and out into the lymph nodes where they can travel anywhere in the body. The lymph nodes are glands that filter out toxins and infection from our bloodstream. It is an entire system known as, "the lymphatic system," and connected throughout the body.

This type of breast cancer has reached what is known as "Stage III" and needs to be treated aggressively to prevent the cancer from spreading to other organs and tissues. This is a serious stage, because it falls just before the last and most severe form of breast cancer, Stage IV or "metastatic breast cancer" that has spread to other organs.

Here is how breast cancer in lymph nodes occurs:

We have lymph nodes all over our body that are connected via the lymphatic system. This network helps your immune system clean out infections, toxins, and fluids. The lymph vessels carry the lymph fluid and anything else that enters the lymph nodes.

If you have a tumor in an organ, the cancerous cells can grow outside the organ and into the lymph nodes. Once cancer cells enter the lymph nodes, they can invade the lymph fluid and travel outside into the lymphatic system to other areas of your body. The good news is the lymph nodes may do their job and kill some or most of the cancer cells; however, some may escape and travel on to lymph nodes outside distant organs.

Once the cancer cells reach other organs, they invade the tissue and begin to grow new tumors. When this happens it is known as, metastasis. The cancer cells usually form tumors in the lymph nodes close to the new organs it is spreading to and then grows into the organ.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Breast cancer in lymph nodes is diagnosed during surgery for breast cancer. When you go in for a mastectomy, the surgeon will remove all of the lymph nodes on that side near your affected breast.

They will either have a microscope in surgery or send them off to the lab to look for cancer cells. If cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes it is called, "lymph node involvement." At this point, the doctor will be able to determine the best treatment to prevent the spread of cancer beyond these lymph nodes.

The doctor will let you know how many lymph nodes were taken out and how many of those had cancer cells in them. For instance, if 5 lymph nodes were taken out and 3 had cancer cells they will let you know. You will also be told the severity of the cancer in each node: minimal, significant, or extra-capsular (cancer has grown outside the lymph node walls).

Will the Treatments Be Any Different to Common Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer that has not invaded the lymph nodes will usually be treated with:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation
  • Chemotherapy

This is known as "localized breast cancer." Your surgeon may opt to remove all of the surrounding lymph nodes "axillary lymph node dissection," to prevent the spread of any cancer cells after surgery and treatment is completed. This will give you more chance for a cure and higher survival rate.

If breast cancer is "regionally advanced" and found in the lymph nodes, the above treatments will be done along with added treatments to stall cancer growth in the lymph nodes and any cancer cells that have spread. These additional treatments may include:

1. Endocrine Therapy

If your breast tumor is "hormone receptor positive" or receptive to estrogen, an estrogen blocking medication will be given. In these types of tumors, estrogen can make the cancer grow faster. Your doctor may also choose to do a hysterectomy and remove the ovaries to prevent further estrogen production in the body. Using these estrogen blocking medications can either stop or slow the growth of breast cancer tumors. Your doctor may also advise you to not use any estrogen containing or estrogen like substances.

2. Targeted Therapy

These types of breast cancer treatment target the cancer cells wherever they have gone in the body. They can block certain things the cells need to grow and reproduce. These therapies are actually easier on your body than chemotherapy and help protect healthy tissues. Targeted therapies work in a few different ways:

  • Block proteins that cancer cells use to grow
  • Immune Targeted Therapy that are antibodies that fight off cancer cells
  • Blocking energy to the cancer cells
  • Preventing blood vessel growth around tumors to cut off the blood supply to the tumor
  • Blocking chemical signals to the cancer cells
  • Stopping cell division of cancer cells

If breast cancer cells are found in distant lymph nodes, they may choose to do another round of radiation targeting those lymph nodes to prevent the cancer from spreading into the surrounding organs near those lymph nodes. While this isn't always effective in preventing Stage IV breast cancer, it may be helpful.

Prognosis for Breast Cancer in Lymph Nodes

Stage III breast cancer in the lymph nodes has a fairly positive prognosis. The five-year survival rate for this stage of breast cancer is 72%. This means that 72% of those diagnosed and treated for breast cancer at this stage will live at least five years. Many women who are diagnosed at this stage are successfully treated and experience remission.

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