Frequently Asked Questions About Sentinel Node Biopsies

What to Expect During and After a Sentinel Node Biopsy

How does the surgeon determine which lymph node(s) to biopsy?

Your surgeon will inject a radioactive substance and possibly a blue dye into the site of your melanoma. Then he or she will wait for about an hour or so while the substance and dye spread. Using a tool that detects radioactivity, your surgeon will follow the path of the dye to one or more lymph nodes, which are then considered most probable to have cancer cells (if your cancer has spread). This is how the surgeon finds the lymph nodes that could be biopsied as part of your cancer diagnosis and treatment.

If there are any lymph nodes in the area that are unusually large, they may be biopsied without the dye and imaging procedure. Risks of this procedure include false negative results in about 2 percent of patients. This means that, in these rare cases, lymph nodes that have cancer are missed.

The most common complications are wound infection, lymphedema, or a hematoma, which is a localized swelling filled with blood. But these complications are far more likely in people undergoing removal of many or all lymph nodes in the tumor area.

Will I need to be sedated for a sentinel node biopsy?

This surgery generally requires you to be sedated by intravenous (IV) or general anesthesia.

Will I need to stay overnight in the hospital after a sentinel node biopsy?

It is typically performed on an inpatient basis, which means that you may need to stay overnight to recover from the procedure.

What if the sentinel node doesn’t contain cancer cells?

If the lymph node or nodes don’t contain cancer cells, the surgeon will leave the rest of the lymph nodes alone. Studies have shown that if the sentinel node or nodes are negative for cancer, then the remaining lymph nodes are likely to be cancer-free as well.

What if the sentinel node does contain cancer cells?

If the lymph node does contain cancer cells, the surgeon may want to biopsy more lymph nodes in the area to find out how far the cancer cells might have spread.