Lymphatic Mapping and Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy for Breast Cancer

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The Lymphatic System and Lymph Nodes

Lymph nodes are kidney bean–shaped structures found throughout the body that are an important part of the immune system. Foreign particles such as bacteria or tumor cells can travel in lymphatic channels toward lymph nodes, which act as a filter. Some breast cancer cells have the ability to travel through the lymphatic channels in the breast toward the lymph nodes in the axilla (the underarm area).

What Is a Sentinel Node?

There are usually between 20 and 40 lymph nodes in each axilla, and these are connected with each other and with the breast. In general, lymphatic channels from the breast merge as they travel toward the lymph nodes, initially draining into 1 or several nodes before moving on to reach other nodes. This first point of drainage, whether into 1 lymph node or several, is considered the sentinel, or “guarding” lymph node or nodes.