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A lymph node is a small, ball-shaped tissue mass that can be found throughout the body. Lymph nodes are an important part of the immune system, because they trap foreign particles that enter the body. They help the body to fight off infections and also warn the body about those infections and any life-threatening diseases by becoming inflamed and swollen. Two of the most common reasons to remove a lymph node are to diagnose or rule out a medical condition, including cancer, and to treat cancer that has invaded the lymph nodes.
Lymph node removal, medically referred to as lymphectomy, is most commonly performed on cancer patients. Lymph node metastasis occurs when a localized cancer, such as breast or lung cancer, starts to spread to other parts of the body, including the lymph nodes. This can prove fatal for the patient, even if caught early.
A doctor may perform a lymph node removal to test for cancer cells within the lymph node, which can help determine if the cancer has spread. Cells within the lymph system are not static but travel throughout the body, meaning that finding cancer in a lymph node means it is likely to be found elsewhere in the body. Removal of the lymph nodes in such a case means the doctor can both determine whether the cancer has spread and remove part of the patient’s cancer in the process.
The particular node affected by lymph node removal surgery depends on the type of illness suspected. For example, treatment for pharynx cancer, which affects the throat, often involves the removal of lymph nodes in the throat. Depending on the size of the cancerous tumor, the removal procedure may involve a just few nodes near the tumor or a radical neck dissection in which all lymph nodes in the neck are removed.
While lymph node removal may help to diagnose cancer and can help the doctor determine the cancer’s growth or regression as treatment progresses, it also has another benefit. Removal of a lymph node or nodes near the original tumor can prevent the cancer's spread to other parts of the body. In some cases, the procedure has been to known to remove all signs of cancer from the patient’s body, curing the disease in the process.
Cancer-related treatments are, perhaps, the most common use of lymph node removal, but they are not the only use. Swollen lymph nodes can be an indication of a variety of illnesses, especially auto-immune diseases such as arthritis and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). When the swelling fails to correct on its own and other symptoms don’t clearly indicate a particular illness, doctors can use lymph node removal to first rule out cancer and then help identify the true cause of the swelling.
I just read a recent article on breast cancer research that found that removing fewer lymph nodes in surgery could actually produce better results. In fact, they compared the benefits and risks of sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) and complete axillary lymph node dissection (ALND) and found that ALND might do more harm than good. Do you think that ALND, which removes all 20-30 lymph nodes, is just playing it safe, or do you think it might actually cause more problems than it’s worth?