Fighting Cancer in the Lymph Nodes With Proton Therapy

Author: Leslie Toldo

Lymph nodes are tiny filters in our bodies, filled with immune cells that help fight infection. When they are doing their job, lymph nodes often get swollen. That’s why you can sometimes feel them in your neck when you get a cold or sore throat. Swollen lymph nodes can also be a sign of cancer.

 “It’s not unusual that the first sign of cancer will be an enlarged lymph node. So, for example, when people get throat cancer, one of the first signs is an enlarging lymph node in the neck,” said Dr. Christian Hyde, board-certified radiation oncologist at McLaren Proton Therapy Center.

There are hundreds of lymph nodes in the lymphatic system that runs throughout the entire body. As the American Cancer Society explains, when cancer spreads from one part of the body to the lymph nodes, more testing will be needed to see how invasive it has become.

 “Once it gets into the lymph nodes, cancer can be life-threatening because it is more likely to come back and appear in other organs, like the lungs, the liver, the bones, what we call stage four cancers. That’s why getting in quickly and getting that treated as soon as possible is crucial.”

 Treating cancer in the lymph nodes often requires radiation, which can be tricky because of where the nodes are in the body.

 “The lymph nodes run along the arteries and the veins, which are vital structures,” Dr. Hyde said. “They supply other important body organs, like the lungs and heart, and the throat, for example. It’s important to be careful around those vital areas during surgery and radiation.”

With traditional radiation therapy, Dr. Hyde says, it is nearly impossible to avoid treating through surrounding vital structures, “Traditional radiation, or x-rays, has an entrance beam, but it also has an exit beam. It goes in, and it goes out the opposite side.”

However, proton therapy is a more targeted way to deliver radiation to tumors involving the lymph nodes, with less risk of damage to surrounding tissues or organs.

“The great thing about protons is they go in one side, but they don’t go out the other,” Dr. Hyde said. “Using protons, when radiation is given to, say, a patient’s lymph nodes in the abdomen, we are better able to stay out of the liver, kidneys, stomach, and bowel. Being able to radiate the lymph nodes is important for a cure, but we don’t want to radiate more than we have to. “

Dr. Hyde says one of the most significant benefits of protecting surrounding tissue and organs is preserving patients’ quality of life.

“For example, when we treat the head and neck with radiation, it can impact patients’ ability to swallow or speak,” Dr. Hyde said, “It’s been shown through research at major cancer centers that when we use protons, patients are more likely to keep eating, they’re more likely to keep active, so their quality of life is better. And they are much less likely to need a feeding tube.”

To learn more about proton therapy, visit