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An axillary lymph node dissection is a surgical procedure that is used to remove and assess the lymph nodes in a woman’s underarm area if breast cancer metastasis is confirmed or suspected. As part of the body’s immune system, the lymph nodes serve as tiny filters for the lymphatic system, a drainage network that circulates throughout the body to help keep fluid levels in balance and prevent infections. Because the lymph nodes in the armpit handle drainage from the breast on the same side of the body, this is usually the first area where breast cancer cells spread.

An axillary node dissection may be recommended if enlarged axillary lymph nodes are detected through a physical examination or if the sentinel node (closest to the breast) has tested positive for cancer following a sentinel node mapping and biopsy. This type of biopsy is often performed during a breast cancer surgery, such as a mastectomy, if lymph node involvement is unconfirmed prior to the procedure.

An axillary lymph node dissection usually involves the following steps:

  • A surgeon creates an incision that measures approximately 2 inches across the patient’s armpit
  • The surgeon removes the pad of fat from the hollow of the armpit, which typically contains most or all of the axillary lymph nodes
  • A pathologist examines the tissue to identify and isolate the lymph nodes
  • The pathologist cuts each node in half, prepares slides and examines the samples under a microscope for evidence of cancer

In addition to removing cancer that has spread from a breast to the lymph nodes in the armpit, an axillary lymph node dissection provides important information that can be used to stage the cancer and help plan a patient’s treatment.

At Moffitt Cancer Center, we offer a complete range of innovative breast cancer diagnostic and treatment options in a single, convenient location. Our highly experienced breast surgeons are fellowship trained and have completed extensive training in breast cancer treatment, above and beyond their medical school training and residencies. With highly successful surgical outcomes, Moffitt consistently ranks at more than 95 percent in patient satisfaction.

To learn more about axillary lymph node dissection and other breast cancer diagnostic and treatment options, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online. No referrals are required.