What is a lymphadenectomy for skin cancer?

A lymphadenectomy, also known as a lymph node dissection, is a surgical treatment where your doctor will remove all the lymph nodes near the site of a primary melanoma. For example, if you have a melanoma on your upper thigh, your doctor will remove the cancerous tumor as well as the lymph nodes in the groin. 

Why is a lymphadenectomy for skin cancer necessary?

Melanoma cancer cells often dislodge from the primary tumor site and travel through the lymphatic system to other parts of the body. In order to stop the spread of the cancerous cells, a lymphadenectomy may be performed.

Your doctor may also perform a lymphadenectomy to determine if the cancer has metastasized to other parts of the body.

Benefits of lymphadenectomy

A lymphadenectomy can accurately determine what stage of melanoma you have, which can help your doctor develop a treatment plan after surgery. By knowing how many lymph nodes contain cancerous cells, it gives your doctor a better understanding of your survival rate. Also, by removing cancerous cells, it can improve survival rate.

Complications associated with lymphadenectomy for skin cancer

Complications associated with a lymphadenectomy include:

  • Lymphedema, where a limb may swell after lymph nodes are removed
  • Numbness or pain in the affected area
  • Breakdown of skin around the surgery site
  • Fluid buildup at affected site

What to expect during a lymphadenectomy for skin cancer

You will be put under general anesthesia for a lymphadenectomy. During the procedure, your doctor will make an incision in the skin above the affected lymph nodes. He or she will then remove the lymph nodes and other underlying soft tissue.

If cancerous cells are found in the lymph nodes, you may need more invasive treatment such as a complete lymphadenectomy, where all the regional lymph nodes are removed to prevent further metastasis.

Recovery from a lymphadenectomy for skin cancer

Recovery from a lymphadenectomy is a lengthy process. Directly after surgery you will be taken to a recovery room for monitoring. As the anesthesia wears off you will be transferred to a regular hospital room. You likely will have a drain inserted to remove the excess fluids from the surgical site. Most patients can go home after a day in the hospital.

Your doctor will give you careful instructions to prevent developing lymphedema — a medical condition where excess fluid doesn’t drain from the body, which results in swelling. Instructions may include:

  • Properly clean the affected area with antibiotic ointment and cover with bandage
  • Avoid heavy lifting
  • Avoid wearing tight clothing
  • Avoid sun and when not possible, use sunscreen
  • Avoid any cuts to skin

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