If you have been diagnosed with melanoma, then you are probably asking yourself “what next?” Even though your doctor may have tried to explain it to you, he probably used medical terms and a bunch of technical words. You probably still do not have a clear idea of what is to be expected once you start treatment. To better understand, so that you will have a clear idea of what is happening to your body during treatment, read this guide about surgery for the treatment of melanoma.

Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy

Surgery is a scary word, we know, but it really is not that bad. Surgery is the most common treatment for melanoma. To rid you of the cancer, the doctor removes the primary melanoma lesion through a form of surgery. Sometimes, he may have to remove a lymph node to check if the cancer has spread into other parts of the body. This is what doctors call a “sentinel lymph node” biopsy.

To explain it a little further, a sentinel lymph node biopsy is where the surgeon removes some of the tissue from your lymph node so that it can be checked for cancer. So, what is the “sentinel lymph node”? Well, your doctor injects a blue dye or a special tracer substance into the area where the cancer was first found. That dye travels through your lymphatic system making a sort of map of your lymph nodes. This will help the doctor determine which lymph node is likely to have cancer, if it did happen to spread. That first lymph node that the dye reaches is called the sentinel lymph node. Once your doctor determines which lymph node is the sentinel lymph node, he then removes it.

This lymph node is then sent to “the lab”. So, what is “the lab”? When a dermatologist or other surgeon removes a lymph node, he or she sends the node off for pathology testing at a clinical laboratory, or “the lab”. A pathologist carefully studies that node to see if there are any cancer cells present. That sentinel lymph node is cut into very thin slices, and the pathologist studies it under a microscope. The he also checks for the same type of cancerous cells that were found in the primary melanoma. The pathologist then sends a report back to the doctor who removed the node. If cancer is found in the sentinel lymph node, then more surgery may be necessary to remove the cancer.

Lymph Node Removal

The removal of lymph nodes is called a “lymphadenectomy”. Basically, if the doctor finds cancerous cells in your sentinel lymph node, he has to operate to remove that one and others, and that operation is the lymphadenectomy. Most likely, the doctor only removes the next lymph node where cancer may be located. However, he could decide to remove a group of lymph nodes.

You will be placed under a general anesthesia, and the doctor will determine which lymph node is the likely choice. Once he determines it, he will make an incision in the skin over the lymph node or nodes to be removed. He will then remove the lymph nodes, some nearby lymphatic tissue, and some of the soft tissue around the lymph nodes.

Common Adverse Effects with Lymphadenectomy

There are some expected adverse effects after the lymphadenectomy. These common complications include:

  • A buildup of fluid at the site of the surgery
  • Infection (redness, warmth, yellow drainage)
  • Swelling of a limb that is on the surgical side
  • Numbness, tingling or pain in the area of the surgery
  • A breakdown of the skin over the area of the surgery

Advice for Recovery

Be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions carefully after surgery. If he prescribes medication for you, remember to ask questions about the side effects and how to take it. You can also ask your pharmacist about the drug interactions and dosing. In addition to that, be sure to follow the directions for any medications your doctor gives you.

Melanoma is the most serious of the three main types of skin cancer, but it is curable. You should cooperate with your doctor during the entire process. Do not be afraid to ask questions, either. Sometimes, doctors forget that not everyone understands medical terminology, and they often use words that are foreign to you.


Your recovery will depend on the extent of the surgery as well as the site where the lymph nodes were removed. Even though “cancer” seems to be a big scary word, it doesn’t mean the end of the world. Most of the time, skin cancers are treatable.

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