Examination of the axillary lymph nodes under the arms can reveal whether cancer has spread beyond the breast to other parts of the body. Axillary lymph node dissection may be performed at the same time as a breast or sentinel node biopsy; after a breast or sentinel node biopsy has produced positive results; or during a mastectomy.
The Axillary Lymph Node Dissection Procedure
With the patient under general anesthesia, an incision is made under the arm, a small amount of fat containing a cluster of lymph nodes is removed, and the incision is closed with sutures. The procedure takes 1 to 2 hours.
Axillary lymph node dissection is more invasive than sentinel node biopsy, and can result in side effects such as lymphedema (swelling) in the arm, limited arm or shoulder movement, and numbness on the skin of the upper arm.