Surgery to the armpit (axilla)

There are two types of surgery to the axilla: axillary dissection/axillary clearance and sentinel node biopsy. 

Whether a woman has surgery to the armpit and the type of surgery recommended depends on how likely the surgeon thinks it is that there are cancer cells in the lymph nodes.The lymph nodes in the armpit (axilla) are often the first place that breast cancer will spread to outside the breast.

The aim of removing lymph nodes from the armpit is to:

  • find out whether breast cancer has spread to the lymph nodes
  • remove any breast cancer that may be in the armpit area
  • help plan further treatment.

What does it mean if cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes?

If cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes removed from the armpit, it means there’s a higher chance that cancer has spread into the bloodstream as well. In this case, treatment with systemic therapies such as chemotherapy or hormonal therapy will probably be recommended.

If a large number of lymph nodes contain cancer cells, radiotherapy to the armpit may be recommended to destroy any cancer cells that may be left in the armpit but cannot be removed by surgery.

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