Assessing Lymph Nodes
During surgery for invasive breast cancer (and sometimes for ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)), one or more lymph nodes in the underarm area (axillary lymph nodes) are removed. A pathologist checks whether or not these nodes contain cancer cells.
The surgeon will likely make a separate incision (cut) in the underarm area (below where your underarm hair grows) to remove the nodes.
The figure below shows the location of the axillary nodes.
Why are axillary lymph nodes removed?
If breast cancer spreads, the axillary lymph nodes are the first place it’s likely to go.
The presence or absence of cancer in these nodes is an important factor affecting cancer stage and prognosis (chances for survival).
Sentinel node biopsy
To see if cancer has spread to the axillary lymph nodes, most people have a procedure called sentinel node biopsy.
Before or during this procedure, a radioactive substance (called a tracer) and/or a blue dye is injected into the breast.
The first lymph nodes to absorb the tracer or dye are called the sentinel nodes. These are also the first lymph nodes where breast cancer is likely to spread.
The surgeon locates the sentinel nodes by looking for the lymph nodes that have absorbed the tracer (using a special device called a gamma probe) or the dye (which turns the lymph nodes blue).
The radioactive tracer or blue dye usually identifies 1-5 nodes as the sentinel nodes. The surgeon removes the sentinel nodes and sends them to a pathologist.
When the surgeon removes sentinel nodes, it doesn’t mean there’s cancer in the nodes. It just means a pathologist needs to check the nodes for cancer.
Findings from a sentinel node biopsy
Lymph node-negative. No cancer is found in the sentinel nodes. So, it’s unlikely other lymph nodes have cancer. Surgery to remove more lymph nodes won’t be needed.
Lymph node-positive. Cancer is found in the sentinel nodes. More lymph nodes may be removed with a procedure called axillary dissection. The goals of axillary dissection are to check how many lymph nodes have cancer and to reduce the chances of cancer returning in the lymph nodes.
When is axillary dissection needed?
Some women with 1-2 positive sentinel nodes who have a lumpectomy and will have whole breast radiation therapy may not need axillary dissection . (Whole breast radiation therapy treats part of the underarm area as well as the breast.)
Most people with one or more positive sentinel nodes who have a mastectomy will need an axillary dissection.
If you have a positive sentinel lymph node, talk with your health care team about whether you need an axillary dissection.
The most common technique to assess pathologic lymph node status is H&E staining.
In the past, immunohistochemistry (IHC) was sometimes used to assess lymph node status. However, studies showed the small deposits of tumor cells identified by IHC were not useful in prognosis [18-19]. IHC is no longer recommended for assessing lymph node status, except when the results of H&E staining are uncertain .
Axillary dissection, sentinel node biopsy and risk of lymphedema
Axillary dissection removes more lymph nodes than a sentinel node biopsy does. Because it disrupts more of the normal tissue in the underarm area, axillary dissection is more likely to affect arm function and cause lymphedema.
For this reason, sentinel node biopsy is the preferred first step to check the axillary lymph nodes.
Who cannot have a sentinel node biopsy?
In some cases, a sentinel node biopsy is not advised and an axillary dissection is done instead.
This usually occurs when:
- A person can’t have a sentinel node biopsy (for example, an axillary dissection has been done in the past)
- The sentinel node(s) can’t be found
- The axillary lymph nodes are already known to contain cancer (for example, the physician felt suspicious lymph nodes and a needle biopsy before surgery showed they contained cancer)
Learn more about axillary lymph nodes.
Learn about lymph node status and breast cancer stage.