Lymph node removal will be recommended for most women with breast cancer. Lymph nodes are Lymph node removal will be recommended for most women with breast cancer. Lymph nodes are lima bean shaped structures that vary in size from that of a pea to the size of a marble. A primary function of a lymph node is to filter unwanted materials from the body, and this includes cancer cells. In fact, if breast cancer cells break off from the main tumor, the first place they are likely to go is to the lymph nodes under the arm (i.e. the axillary lymph nodes). One of the most important indicators of prognosis is the status of the axillary lymph nodes (i.e. no nodes involved good means prognosis; the more nodes involved, the worse the prognosis).
For this reason, it was standard therapy in the past to remove all of the lymph nodes under the arm at the time of the removal of the breast cancer to determine prognosis. It is now standard practice to remove only the first draining lymph node (sentinel lymph node) at this time of the lumpectomy or mastectomy, and have it examined under the microscope (see link to sentinel lymph node). If the lymph node is free of cancer cells, no other lymph nodes are removed. By limiting the number of nodes removed, recovery is accelerated and the risk of complications (such as lymphedema) are minimized (see link to Lymphedema ).