Decorative image

Surgery to remove lymph nodes

Find out how you have surgery to remove the lymph nodes under the arm for breast cancer and why.

If breast cancer spreads, it usually first spreads to the lymph nodes close to the breast. These lymph nodes drain the lymphatic fluid from the breast and arm.

Diagram showing the network of lymph nodes in around the breast

Your doctor checks these nodes either:

  • before breast cancer surgery
  • during your breast cancer operation (sentinel lymph node biopsy)

If the nodes contain cancer cells

If there are cancer cells in the lymph nodes, a surgeon removes most or all of the lymph nodes under the arm. This is called an axillary lymph node dissection (ALND) or axillary clearance.

They might do this during the same operation as your breast surgery or as a second operation.

Removing the lymph nodes helps to reduce the risk of your cancer coming back. Also, knowing if there are cancer cells in your lymph nodes helps doctors plan treatment after surgery.

Some people will have radiotherapy to the lymph nodes instead of surgery.

Having lymph node removal

You have a general anaesthetic for this operation. You will be asleep the whole time.

The surgeon makes a small cut in your armpit to remove the lymph nodes. Generally they remove between 10 and 15 lymph nodes. But the number of nodes in the armpit varies from person to person.

The surgeon sends the lymph nodes to the laboratory. A pathologist checks them for cancer cells. You get the results at your follow up appointment, about 2 weeks after surgery.

Scar tissue in the armpit (cording)

Some women develop scar tissue in the armpit after lymph node removal. The connective tissues in the armpit get inflamed, which forms one or more tight bands. This usually happens within the first few weeks or months after the operation.

The scar tissue is called cording or banding or axillary web syndrome. It can feel something like a guitar string. It can extend down the arm past the elbow, possibly as far as the wrist or thumb.

Cording is harmless but can be painful and can limit your arm movement. Massaging the area regularly can help. Tell your breast care nurse if you develop cording. They can refer you to a physiotherapist. They can show you how to massage the area and teach you stretching exercises. It usually gets better within a few months. Other things that can help include moist heat and anti inflammatory painkillers.

Picture showing cording in the armpit

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.