One of the first places breast cancer can spread to is the lymph nodes under the armpit (also called axillary lymph nodes). For this reason, many women who are diagnosed with breast cancer may be recommended by their breast surgeon to have lymph nodes removed at the time of their breast cancer surgery. There are two types of lymph node surgery for breast cancer: sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) and axillary lymph node dissection (ALND). If needed, lymph node surgery is typically performed at the same time as the breast surgery (lumpectomy or mastectomy).
In certain situations, a needle biopsy of a lymph node prior to surgery might be recommended.
In many cases, it is important to know if the lymph nodes contain cancer cells because, if so, this can impact a breast cancer treatment plan. If the lymph nodes contain cancer, this is referred to as “node-positive.” If lymph nodes are positive, this may indicate a later stage of breast cancer and other treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, and/or additional surgery could be necessary. If the lymph nodes do not contain any cancer cells, this is referred to as “node-negative.”