During surgery for breast cancer, your surgeon may remove the first few lymph nodes draining your breast. These first lymph nodes are called sentinel lymph nodes and will help determine the stage of your tumor, depending on whether there is cancer found in the sentinel nodes.
To identify the sentinel lymph nodes, your surgeon will inject either a harmless radioactive tracer and/or a blue dye around the nipple. This dye will travel through the lymph channels, just as a cancer cell would travel, to help your surgeon identify which lymph nodes to remove. Studies have shown that the removal of only the sentinel lymph node can have the same outcome for some women as compared to the removal of more lymph node tissue (ALND).
Following surgery, your lymph node(s) will be examined by a doctor trained to look for cancer under a microscope (pathologist) to determine if there is cancer in it. This is an important step because it can determine what type(s) of treatment may be recommended after breast surgery.
In some situations, if lymph nodes contain cancer, then more lymph nodes need to be taken. This is called a complete axillary dissection. With this procedure, there is a greater risk of arm swelling after treatment, called lymphedema, and your surgeon will discuss how to watch for and prevent lymphedema from occurring.
Typically, breast cancer surgery is covered by insurers. However, coverage varies by insurance carrier and plan. Contact your insurance carrier to learn more about your individual coverage.