An axillary lymph node dissection is an operation to remove a grouping of lymph nodes from the underarm (axilla) on the same side where breast cancer was diagnosed. Usually 10 – 20 lymph nodes are removed, but the actual number can vary.
If cancer has been identified in one or more lymph nodes under the arm someone already diagnosed with breast cancer, removal of a larger grouping of lymph nodes is often needed to be certain that all of the cancerous lymph nodes are taken out. An axillary lymph node dissection may be performed as part of the initial operative procedure for breast cancer, or it may be needed after completing chemotherapy.
The cancerous lymph nodes and the surrounding lymph nodes are removed with as little disruption as possible to the veins and nerves in the immediate area. The lymph nodes are removed in a grouping, and there are usually enough normal lymph nodes left behind to allow for proper healing and recovery. A surgical drain is often left in place to drain the fluid that collects after surgery
The drain is removed in the doctor’s office about a week or two after the surgery. It is normal to have soreness and limited range of motion for several weeks after surgery. Physical therapy may be helpful to restore movement and reduce the risk of lymphedema (arm swelling that can occur after removing lymph nodes).