When breast cancer is detected, your doctor might recommend additional testing to check if it has metastasized (spread) to the lymphatic system. One of the tests might be an axillary lymph node biopsy.

Why is an axillary lymph node biopsy performed?

The axillary lymph nodes are the lymph nodes located in the armpits. They are typically where breast cancer first spreads due to the fact that they are the closest lymph nodes to the cancer’s point of origin.

A lymph node biopsy is a diagnostic procedure performed when there is a possibility that cancer has spread to the lymphatic system. Indications that cancer has spread to the axillary lymph nodes include:

  • A lump or mass in the armpit
  • A lump or mass near the collar bone
  • A lump or mass at the breastbone
  • Swelling of the arms or hands

Please seek medical attention immediately if you notice any swelling in your armpits.

What does an axillary lymph node biopsy do?

There are generally two types of diagnostic procedures performed to determine whether breast cancer has spread to the lymphatic system: a sentinel node biopsy or an axillary lymph node dissection.

  • Sentinel node biopsy: This procedure involves injecting either a dye or radioactive solution (sometimes both) into the breast, where it is passed through the lymphatic system. This procedure helps the surgeon visualize the sentinel nodes, which are the first axillary lymph nodes to show signs that cancer has spread. The surgeon then uses guided imaging technology to identify the sentinel nodes so that they can be extracted and tested by a pathologist for indications of cancer. Between one and five sentinel nodes are removed.
  • Axillary lymph node dissection: An axillary lymph node dissection is the removal of most or all axillary nodes. Axillary lymph node dissection is generally performed once cancer is confirmed via sentinel lymph node biopsy.

How do I prepare for an axillary lymph node biopsy?

Your doctor will give you specific instructions prior to the procedure. However, it is generally recommended that patients avoid eating or drinking on the day of the biopsy. You will also want to alert your doctor to any supplements or medications you are currently taking.

How long does an axillary lymph node biopsy take?

The duration of the procedure will depend upon whether another surgery (a lumpectomy, for example) is performed simultaneously. The procedure generally takes approximately 45 minutes.

Are there any risks involved with an axillary lymph node biopsy?

As with any surgery, there are minor risks of infection at the surgical site. Some patients have an allergic reaction to the dye or radioactive solution used to visualize the sentinel lymph nodes.

The most significant potential complication is a condition called lymphedema. While it is extremely rare after sentinel lymph node biopsies, it is more likely to occur after an axillary lymph node dissection, particularly if all the lymph nodes are removed. Lymphedema occurs when lymphatic fluid cannot drain, causing fluid accumulation that leads to significant swelling. It is critical to follow your doctor’s aftercare instructions to ensure proper lymphatic drainage after the procedure.

At Valley Radiology, we take pride in providing patients with state-of-the-art surgical techniques and technologies that deliver exceptional outcomes with minimal discomfort. If you have any questions about our diagnostic services, please contact our helpful representatives today.

Please note that a doctor's referral is required for an axillary lymph node biopsy and all other services except for Mammogram.