If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor may want to schedule a lymph node biopsy as a part of your treatment plan. A biopsy is a procedure where your doctor will remove a small sample of cells from your body to run further tests on them in a laboratory. Take a look at why lymph node biopsies are so important for breast cancer patients and what to expect during this procedure.
What are the Lymph Nodes, and Why are They Biopsied?
The lymph nodes are small bean-shaped structures in your body that filter lymphatic fluid. The lymphatic fluid contains white blood cells and other bodily components that boost the immune system and fight against infection.
When a patient has breast cancer, the lymph nodes near the collarbone and the armpits are some of the first places that the cancer can spread. A biopsy of these nodes helps the doctor know just how far the cancer has spread so that they can recommend the best course of treatment. For instance, if the cancer hasn't spread to the lymph nodes, then a doctor might recommend a less invasive cancer treatment, such as a lumpectomy, instead of a mastectomy.
Which Type of Biopsy Do You Need?
The main procedure that is often used is a sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB). During an SLNB procedure, your doctor will inject a radioactive dye, or tracer substance, near the lymph nodes. This dye stains the lymph nodes so that your doctor can make a small incision and easily remove the tissue for biopsy. If a pathologist finds cancer in the nodes, then your doctor may request additional biopsy procedures. SLNB can be performed before the primary cancer tumor is removed, at the same time, or even after. The main benefit of SNBL is that it can help patients avoid more invasive lymph node surgeries. If your cancer is more invasive and multiple lymph nodes have cancer cells, your doctor might recommend an axillary lymph node dissection (ALND). During ALND, dozens of lymph nodes are removed—typically at the same time as a mastectomy or a breast-conserving surgery.
Are There Risks to Lymph Node Biopsies?
Lymph node biopsies are generally safe, but every surgery carries some risk of complication. For example, some patients may experience allergic reactions to the dye that's used. Some people may experience pain or bruising at the biopsy site. And some people might develop lymphedema, where lymph vessels swell. However, the Annals of Surgical Oncology reports that sentinel lymph node biopsies have a low complication rate. Your doctor will help you weigh the pros and cons, but the benefits of biopsies often outweigh the risks as these procedures can help diagnose the extent of the cancer and help your doctor choose the best treatment options.
Reach out to a health and medical provider today for more details.