At the start of the surgery, the surgeon removes a single lymph node from the patient. The very first one in the armpit or axillary area, called the Sentinel Lymph Node. The lymph system filters your body to find intruders, like the flu virus, or like cancer. It sends notice of the intrusion back to the brain, which develops a strategy for removing the problem.

Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy was originally published by the National Cancer Institute

Sentinel lymph node biopsy of the breast. A radioactive substance and/or blue dye is injected near the tumor (first panel). The injected material is located visually and/or with a device that detects radioactivity (middle panel). The sentinel node(s) (the first lymph node(s) to take up the material) is (are) removed and checked for cancer cells (last panel).

They perform a biopsy on the single Sentinel node, right then and there during the surgery, to see if it is cancerous. If it is, they go back and grab the rest of the lymph nodes from around the armpit, and send them for further biopsy as well.

This is better than the old way of doing it; they used to just grab all the axillary lymph nodes in the area and send them all for biopsies, just in case. But losing a clump of lymph nodes can put a strain on the rest of your lymph system and can cause further life-long complications, like lymphedema.

So, I am thankful for the research that has proven if breast cancer has spread, it always goes to the Sentinel node first. If that node is clean, there is no need to take out the others.

Except mine was cancerous. The cancer has begun its way out of my breast, away from the tumor, and has started its journey into the rest of my body.

Without the full results, I already know my “stage” has jumped from Stage 1 to at least Stage 2. My odds of living 10 years have dropped, to 85%.