Breast cancer is a disease which can spread to the lymph nodes under your arm. Not all breast cancers spread to the lymph nodes so surgeons do not remove all the nodes (axillary dissection). Axillary dissection can carry a 10% chance of developing swelling of the arm (lymphedema) which can be very severe in some cases.
Dr. O’Neill will perform a sentinel biopsy to identify those patients who have cancer in their nodes and distinguish them from patients who do not have cancer in their nodes. This information is essential in planning treatment such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Node positive patients can be treated differently from those who are node negative. It is also useful to know if a patient has cancer in the nodes prior to considering breast reconstruction post masectomy.
The sentinel node procedure is designed to identify 1-3 nodes that are most likely to be involved if cancer has indeed spread from the breast. If cancer is not found in those nodes then it is very unlikely there is cancer in the remaining nodes and so no further surgery will be performed in the axilla (under arm). If cancer cells are found in the nodes then additional therapy such as surgical removal of all the nodes or radiotherapy to the axilla may be offered. Chemotherapy is also likely to be recommended for node positive patients. Most patients will early stage breast cancer do not have cancer in their nodes.