There is always a moment when I cringe, the moment someone asks me the question, “how did you find out you had cancer?” Unlike the more familiar cancers such as breast cancer (lump) or skin cancer (oddly shaped blemish or mole), a blood cancer such as lymphoma and leukemia do not give the obvious signs which accelerate the opportunity for diagnosis. As I have mentioned in prior posts, my original family physician, who is not an oncologist, originally diagnosed my Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, as a common cold. After all, he had seen plenty of patients over his career, who had a similar symptom, and that is all that it was. But because lymphoma is rare, it makes it complicated to diagnose. And with lymphoma, treating it, and curing it, time is something you do not have time to spare.
So getting back to “how did I find out?” Unlike other symptoms that I have had later on in life after I became aware of my compromised health, as a healthy young 22-year old, I really do not recall any particular moment before discovering a swollen lymph node under my left ear. I do not recall any other symptoms that would have allowed me to share with my doctor. A simple “itch” at that one particular moment, led to me discovering the swollen lymph node.
Now, as you are reading this, there is a good chance that you have now begun feeling around your neck area for any signs of a swollen lymph node. This is why I cringe when I am asked the discovery question. Because it is rare that the swollen lymph node is anything more than the body doing what it is supposed to.
A cold is a foreign substance that needs the body to use its immune system to fight that substance. Your immune system is your lymph system. The lymph system consists of not just lymph nodes which are located throughout your entire body from head to feet, but also certain organs of your body like the spleen, thymus, and tonsils. Of course, just as you have blood vessels, you also have lymph vessels to help in the process of dealing with most illnesses when your body is faced with them. The system is much more complicated than I can put in a post, but just know that it is perfectly normal to have a swollen lymph node when dealing with common illnesses. A swollen node is not an automatic diagnosis of cancer.
A normal working lymph system will produce antibodies to help your body fight what is ailing you. We sometimes get vaccines to help in this process (like for the flu and pneumonia). And other times we need prescription medicines. And under normal circumstances, the body will do what it has always done. But some times, the infection of the lymph node is just too great for the body to fight by itself. One thing to keep in mind, a swollen lymph node does not always cause pain. Like I said, mine was an itch. I have heard stories from others about the pain being so great, and there is usually more involved to the diagnosis at that stage of the disease.
So here is how I follow up the question, “how did I find out?”, and it is common sense. If you discover a lump or swollen node, do not panic. Contact your doctor immediately. I know. I know. My doctor misdiagnosed me. But things are much different today. Awareness has become just as much important as the cure. Doctors have so many more tools at their disposal, and they are definitely the ones better to make the diagnosis, cold, infection, or something else. But whatever you do, tell your doctor everything that is not normal with your body at that moment to accompany the obvious symptom, a swollen node. Then let your doctor do their job. Do not be surprised though, if you are told “it’s probably a cold or infection” and you are sent on your way with a prescription. This is normal. Believe me, you will know soon enough if it is more than that as the medication, although showing slight improvement, will not resolve the issue, then it could be something else. Hopefully though, you have a doctor who is more involved with your care, and willing to take extra steps ahead of time, like perhaps bloodwork to check white cell counts to see if anything goofy is going on with your immune system.
Bottom line, if you find a swollen node, do not panic. See a doctor. Do not diagnose yourself.