How is breast cancer related to the axillary lymph nodes?



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The lymphatic system is one of the body’s chief infection fighters. This system contains lymph, which is a type of fluid, and lymph nodes, which are positioned in key areas in the body.

Lymph nodes are responsible for filtering lymph fluid and detecting chemical changes that signal if an infection is present.

Cancer cells can also get into the lymphatic system and get lodged in lymph nodes. When they are in the armpit, these filter points are called axillary lymph nodes.

  • When cancer has spread to the axillary lymph nodes, the nodes may feel enlarged, or there may be a noticeable lump.
  • A breast cancer prognosis is better when the cancer is only in the breast, and the lymph nodes are not affected.
  • Most people who have enlarged axillary lymph nodes do not have cancer at all.
  • The staging or grading of cancer takes into account whether and how much cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.

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Axillary lymph nodes and breast cancer

Sometimes, breast cancer can spread to the axillary lymph nodes, which are in a person’s armpits.

The number of axillary lymph nodes can vary from person to person, ranging from 5 nodes to more than 30.

When someone is diagnosed with breast cancer, knowing if cancer has spread to their axillary lymph nodes can determine the type of treatment they have, as well as their prognosis.

The connection between axillary lymph nodes and breast cancer

women holding breast cancer ribbons
Knowing whether cancer has spread to the axillary lymph nodes can impact both treatment and prognosis.

The axillary lymph nodes are usually the first set of lymph nodes where breast cancer will spread.

And because the breast and armpit are close to each other, the lymph nodes are a common place where this type of cancer spreads.

As a general rule, the more a cancer has spread from its starting point, the worse the prognosis may be for a person.

Also, if the cancer has spread to the axillary lymph nodes, a doctor will usually recommend removing the lymph nodes during the surgery to remove the originating tumor.

Lymph nodes are responsible for draining lymph fluid, so their removal can cause some side effects after surgery. One side effect can be lymphedema of the arm, which is a chronic swelling of the arm.


Axillary lymph nodes often feel like small, round “sponges” under the skin. Sometimes they are painful to the touch. A doctor will investigate if the cancer may have spread to the lymph nodes by doing…