What is sentinel lymph node biopsy?

A sentinel lymph node biopsy, also known as sentinel node biopsy, SLNB or SNB, is a surgical procedure that is used to determine if your cancer is spreading or has spread to the lymph nodes. As cancer cells move through the lymphatic vessels, the sentinel node is the first node they reach. 

During this procedure, your doctor will locate and remove the sentinel node and examine it for cancerous cells. If the sentinel node does not contain cancerous cells, it is unlikely that the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.

Who is a candidate for sentinel lymph node biopsy?

If you are being evaluated for advanced melanoma and your lymph nodes are not enlarged, your surgeon may perform a sentinel lymph node biopsy near the affected site. 

Side effects of a sentinel lymph node biopsy for skin cancer

Bruising, pain and swelling are the most common side effects of a sentinel node biopsy for skin cancer. You could also experience bleeding and infection at the incision site. 

In some cases, patients get a false-negative result. This means that the test does not detect cancerous cells when there are cancerous cells present in the sentinel node.

Benefits of sentinel lymph node biopsy

Because a sentinel node biopsy allows your doctor to examine one node before removing many lymph nodes, risk of complications is reduced. If cancer is not present in the sentinel node, more invasive surgeries can be prevented.

What to expect during sentinel lymph node biopsy

Your doctor will likely perform a sentinel node mapping procedure to identify the draining sentinel node. When it is located, your surgeon will remove the node and send it to a laboratory for evaluation. A pathologist will examine the lymph node to determine if there are any cancerous cells present. If there are no cancer cells present, it is likely that the cancer has not spread to the other lymph nodes nearby.

If cancerous cells are found in the sentinel lymph node, your doctor will likely remove the remaining lymph nodes nearby in a procedure all a lymph node dissection.

Recovery from sentinel lymph node biopsy

Recovery time will vary depending upon if your doctor also removed skin cancer tissue during the same procedure and complexity of the surgery required.

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