Lymph node dissection, or lymphadenectomy, is the removal of lymph nodes and sometimes the surrounding tissue, almost always as part of cancer treatment. Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped nodules found throughout the body that filter lymph fluid and fight infection. When a nearby cancer tumor is present, cancer cells can break free and spread through the lymphatic system, ending up caught in the lymph nodes. Unless removed or destroyed, these cells can spread cancer throughout the body. Lymphadenectomy removes the affected lymph nodes and any stray cells.
Lymphadenectomy is often performed after a biopsy, or test of the lymph nodes, to see if cancer cells are present. If surgery is necessary, it is most often done through a single incision. In the case of lymph nodes located deep within the body, the surgeon will sometimes use minimally invasive surgery, such as video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS) or laparoscopy, using a lighted probe and camera along with tiny instruments that can be passed through small openings. VATS is used for lymphadenectomy procedures in the chest while laparoscopy is used for lymphadenectomy procedures in the abdomen. The lymph nodes that are removed will be examined by a pathologist to check for cancer.
Recovery from the actual surgery does not take long. The incisions are fairly small and often heal quickly. However, lymphadenectomy can sometimes cause swelling in the affected arm or leg, caused by a buildup of lymph fluid. This is called lymphedema. If you experience swelling, pain, or tingling after a lymphadenectomy, talk to your doctor about ways you can reduce these symptoms.