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Treating Breast Cancer Early

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How Lymph Nodes Are Related to Breast Cancer

Medically Reviewed By Teresa Hagan Thomas PHD, BA, RN

Lymph nodes filter out cancer cells from the body, so doctors look there to determine whether breast cancer cells are spreading. Treatment may involve lymph node removal if breast cancer is detected at this stage.


When breast cancer metastasizes, it spreads outside the original area of breast tissue where it first formed. Often, breast cancer first spreads into nearby lymph nodes. Breast cancer staging can help determine whether lymph nodes or other tissues are affected. This information is then used to develop the most effective treatment plan.

People who receive a breast cancer diagnosis often wonder what treatments are available if it has spread. There are several treatments a doctor may suggest, and research is paving the way for new, more effective treatments. Ask your doctor about the latest early stage breast cancer therapies and how you might benefit.

Breast cancer and lymph nodes

Lymph nodes are part of the body’s lymphatic system, composed of nodes, ducts, valves, vessels, and organs. This system has two primary purposes:

  • It helps the body drain extra fluid from tissues and returns this fluid to the bloodstream. This fluid is called lymph.
  • The lymphatic system helps the body’s immune system filter out infections or other foreign invaders, including cancer cells.

There are hundreds of lymph nodes spread throughout the body, but there are several near each breast. They’re found in the armpit area, throughout the chest, and near the collarbone. 

Because lymph nodes help filter out cancer cells, you can check the lymph nodes near the breast for signs of cancer spreading. This is part of the breast cancer staging process.

Doctors will first determine whether breast cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes. The sentinel lymph node is the nearest lymph node or group of lymph nodes.

If breast cancer cells are present in the sentinel lymph node, doctors will continue testing to determine how many other lymph nodes are affected. They then use this information to decide which treatments might work best.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) Trusted Source American Cancer Society Highly respected international organization Go to source classifies cancer spread to lymph nodes on a scale of 0 to 3. At level 0, breast cancer hasn’t spread to any nearby lymph nodes. However, at level 3, there is evidence that breast cancer cells have multiple qualifying factors including the number of lymph nodes, size, and location.

Treating early breast cancer

If your doctor determines your lymphatic system is affected by breast cancer, surgery to remove the affected lymph nodes may accompany treatments for the breast cancer itself.

Your doctor may recommend removing one or more lymph nodes to prevent cancer from spreading further.

Surgery to remove part or all of the affected breast may be the best treatment option for early stage breast cancer. If your doctor suggests surgery, you may have the option to preserve at least a portion of the breast.

Also, many people with breast cancer diagnosis who have a mastectomy may have breast reconstruction surgery after treatment. This helps preserve the appearance of the breasts even after cancerous tissue is removed.

Your doctor may also suggest traditional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Usually, these treatments are given after surgery to remove any remaining breast cancer cells doctors may have missed.

Some people also benefit from hormone therapy. If the breast cancer cells grow in response to hormones in the bloodstream, hormone therapy can block them from getting the hormones they need. Like HER2-targeted therapy, this slows or stops the growth of breast cancer.

Some treatments may be more beneficial if the lymph nodes are involved. After initial treatment your doctor may suggest maintenance therapy.

Talk with your doctor if you have received a breast cancer diagnosis to learn which treatments may be best for you.

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Medical Reviewer: Teresa Hagan Thomas PHD, BA, RN
Last Review Date: 2023 Mar 31
View All Treating Breast Cancer Early Articles
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