When a patient is diagnosed with thyroid cancer, it is important to consider the possibility that that the cancer may have spread to lymph nodes in the neck. However, physical symptoms experienced by the patient provide only limited guidance in determining whether this has occurred.

  • Enlarged lymph nodes can be a sign that cancer has spread to the lymphatic system, but they can also have other causes, such as inflammation and infection.
  • Lymph nodes containing cancer are often not palpable (i.e., cannot be felt by hand) and cause no symptoms.

When cancerous lymph nodes are palpable, they are usually felt as painless, firm lumps at the side of the neck. When symptoms do occur, it is usually due to the enlarged lymph node pressing on surrounding structures such as the esophagus (swallowing difficulty), the windpipe (trouble breathing), or nerves (pain or hoarseness).

Because of the difficulty in determining whether the cancer has spread from symptoms alone, diagnostic tests are usually performed.

Doctor examining a patient's neck

This information is provided by the Department of Surgery at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. It is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition.