Q. I'm having several lymph nodes removed from under the arm—what can I expect?
Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped masses of tissue that are located in clusters throughout the body, including in the armpit. Lymph nodes play a crucial role in helping to fight infection; they filter and trap bacteria, viruses, and other unwanted substances in the body, so that special white blood cells (called lymphocytes) can then destroy them.
When treating cancer, doctors sometimes choose to remove and biopsy nearby lymph nodes to learn whether any of the nodes contain cancer cells. This information helps determine whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, a process known as “staging.” This information also helps the health care team decide on an appropriate and tailored treatment plan.
As with any surgical procedure, there might be side effects. You may sustain some degree of nerve damage during the procedure, resulting in tingling, numbness, or weakness in your arm. These neuropathy symptoms can be mild or more severe, depending on the extent of nerve involvement. You may experience swelling in the arm due to a build-up of lymph fluid that is no longer draining effectively through the remaining lymph nodes; this condition is called lymphedema. You may experience a temporary inflammation of blood vessels in your armpit as well as a higher potential for blood clotting and infection at the biopsy site.
If your health care team has recommended this procedure for you, it is likely because they feel that the benefits outweigh any of these potential risks. Nevertheless, it is always a good idea to have a frank discussion with your surgeon about possible side effects and any preventive measures you can take to lower your risk of experiencing them.
For more information about lymphedema, please visit The National Lymphedema Network.
To learn more about lymph node removal surgery, please visit The National Cancer Institute.