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Sentinel Node Biopsy

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A sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) is one way doctors can see if breast cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. It involves less cutting and tissue removal than a more extensive procedure called an axillary lymph node dissection (ALND). ALND involves the removal of many of the lymph nodes under the arm and is linked to a higher risk of lymphedema (swelling in the arm and chest).

The sentinel lymph node is the first node in the body that cancer cells reach as they spread or metastasize. The sentinel nodes act as gatekeepers at the entrance to the other lymph nodes. If cancer has not spread to the 2 or 3 sentinel nodes, it’s usually not necessary to remove other lymph nodes. In turn, this spares women the potential side effects of ALND, such as lymphedema, numbness or pain in the chest and arm, and decreased shoulder mobility.

By checking the cells in the sentinel nodes, the surgeon can also “stage” breast cancer to figure out how much disease there is and if and where it has spread. This is important to know when deciding on the best treatment plan.

If even a tiny amount of cancer is found, it’s possible that other nodes have cancer in them and an ALND will be done. Treatment will also include adjuvant therapy (treatment given after surgery), such as radiation or chemotherapy. If the sentinel nodes do not contain cancer cells, it’s almost certain that the other nodes are also cancer-free, and no further surgical treatment will be needed. Still, a woman may need to get chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery, depending on the stage of her disease.

SLNB is usually done under anesthesia (drugs are used to put the patient in a deep sleep). The technique is complicated and you should be sure to find a surgeon who has done many of these operations and has a lot of experience with this technique.

You can usually return to work or go back to your normal activities within a few days after SLNB, in contrast to the recovery period of 4 to 6 weeks following ALND. Major complications from sentinel node biopsy are rare.

Para solicitar información en español, llame al 1-800-227-2345. Un especialista en información sobre el cáncer le asistirá en español.


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