Lymph nodes are small glands that act as a filtering system for the body; the nodes in your armpit can become a magnet for breast cancer on the move. "What I tell patients is that there are two parts to breast cancer surgerythe first part is the operation on the breast itself, whether the lumpectomy or mastectomy, and the second part has to do with the lymph nodes, which is the first place cancer cells tend to go when they leave the breast," says Monica Morrow, MD, chief of the Breast Service in the Department of Surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
If you have breast cancer, here's what you need to know about your lymph nodes.
- If you're "node negative" (meaning no lymph nodes show cancer cells), that automatically cuts the seriousness of your diagnosis and puts you in stage I.
- Being "node positive" means the cancer may have spread. The more nodes involved, the more serious things get.
To find out for certain whether your lymph node(s) have cancer cells, you'll undergo a sentinel node biopsy, which involves removal of tissue from the lymph node closest to the cancer, or an axillary lymph node dissection, which removes several lymph nodes entirely.
More breast surgeons use the newer sentinel node biopsy procedure because it's simpler, less invasive, and can save you from having to go through a more complicated node dissection if your surgeon gets an all-clear on the nodes back from the pathologist. However, a sentinel node biopsy can turn into an axillary node dissection if your surgeon finds cancer in the nodes while you're still in surgery.