Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy (Usually for Breast Cancer)

Lymph nodes are oval-shaped glands that contain cells that defend the body against foreign substances. They are part of the lymphatic system and are located in different parts of the body such as the neck, armpits, behind the ears, chest, abdomen and groin. A sentinel lymph node is considered the first node that a primary cancer can spread to. Sentinel lymph node biopsy is a procedure to remove the sentinel lymph node closest to the cancerous organ to examine it for malignancy.

Sentinel lymph node biopsy is performed on an outpatient or inpatient basis. During the procedure, your doctor injects a dye and/or a radioactive substance close to the cancer. The sentinel lymph node is then identified. The skin around your lymph node is cleaned and a small incision is made. Your surgeon removes either the complete or partial lymph node and sends it to the laboratory to determine if cancer cells are present. The incision is then closed with the help of sutures.

A negative result for cancer cells indicates that the cancer is limited to the primary organ and has not spread to other parts of the body. However, the presence of cancer cells in the sentinel lymph node(s) indicates that the cancer may has spread from the primary organ, possibly to other lymph nodes and other organs. Sentinel lymph node biopsy is important in determining the extent of disease and staging of the cancer, especially in breast cancer and a form of skin cancer. The biopsy results help your doctor to develop an appropriate treatment plan.

As with any procedures, sentinel lymph node surgery may be associated with certain risks and complications such as pain, bleeding, swelling, infection of the incision site and nerve injury.