Lymph Node Biopsy
The lymph system is the body's primary defense against infection. It consists of the spleen, tonsils, thymus, lymph nodes, lymph vessels, and the clear, slightly yellow fluid called lymph. These components produce and transport white blood cells called lymphocytes and macrophages that rid the body of infection. The lymph system is also involved in the production of antibodies. Antibodies are proteins that fight bacteria, viruses, and other foreign materials that enter the body.
The lymph vessels are similar to veins, only instead of carrying blood as veins do, they circulate lymph to most tissues in the body. Lymph nodes are about 600 small, bean-shaped collections of tissue found along the lymph vessel. They produce cells and proteins that fight infection, and clean and filter lymph. Lymph nodes are sometimes called lymph glands, although they are not true glands. When someone talks about having swollen glands, they are actually referring to lymph nodes.
Normal lymph glands are no larger than 0.5 in (1.3 cm) in diameter and are difficult to feel. However, lymph nodes can enlarge to greater than 2.5 in (6 cm) and can become sore. Most often the swelling is caused by an infection, but it can also be caused by cancer.
Cancers can metastasize (spread) through the lymph system from the site of the original tumor to distant parts of the body where secondary tumors are formed. The purpose of a lymph node biopsy is to determine the cause of the swelling and/or to see if cancer has begun to spread through the lymph system. This information is important in staging the cancer and devising a treatment plan.
There are three kinds of lymph node biopsy. Sentinel lymph node mapping and biopsy is a promising new technique that is discussed in its own entry. Fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy, often just called needle biopsy, is done when the lymph node of interest is near the surface of the body. A hematologist (a doctor who specializes in blood diseases) usually performs the test. In FNA biopsy, a needle is inserted through the skin and into the lymph node, and a sample of tissue is drawn out of the node. This material is preserved and sent to the laboratory for examination.
Advantages of a needle biopsy are that the test is minimally invasive. Only a local anesthetic is used, the procedure generally takes less than half an hour, and there is little pain afterwards. The disadvantage is that cancer may not be detected in the small sample of cells removed by the needle.
Open lymph node biopsy is a surgical procedure. It is done by a surgeon under general anesthesia on lymph nodes in the interior of the body and under local anesthesia on surface lymph nodes where FNA biopsy is considered inadequate. Once there is adequate anesthesia, the surgeon makes a small cut and removes either the entire lymph node or a slice of tissue that is then sent to the laboratory for examination. Results in both kinds of biopsies take one to three days.
Open biopsy can be advantageous in that it is easier to detect and identify the type of cancer in a large piece of tissue. Also, lymph nodes deep in the body can be sampled. Disadvantages include a longer recovery time, soreness at the biopsy site for several days, and the use of deeper anesthesia, increasing the risks to the patient. The procedure is done in a hospital or outpatient surgery center and takes about an hour, with additional time to recover from general anesthesia.
No particular preparation is necessary for a needle biopsy. For an open biopsy, patients need standard pre-operative blood tests and other tests to evaluate general health. The doctor should be informed about any medications (prescription, non-prescription, or herbal) the patient is taking, as well as past bleeding problems or allergies to medication or anesthesia.
Little aftercare is needed in a needle biopsy other than a bandage to keep the biopsy site clean. Patients who have general anesthesia for an open biopsy often feel drowsy and tired for several days following the procedure, and should not plan to drive home after biopsy. The incision site must be kept clean and dry, and a follow-up visit to check on healing is usually necessary.
There are few risks associated with lymph node biopsy. The main risks are excessive bleeding (usually only in people with blood disorders) and allergic reaction to general anesthesia (rare). Occasionally the biopsy site becomes infected.
Abnormal lymph nodes are usually enlarged and contain cancerous (malignant) cells and/or show signs of infection.
Ioachim, H. Lymph Node Pathology. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 1993.
American Cancer Society. National Headquarters, 1599 Clifton Road NE, Atlanta, GA 30329. 800 (ACS)-2345).<http://www.cancer.org>
Cancer Information Service. National Cancer Institute, Building 31, Room 10A19, 9000 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD20892. (800)4-CANCER. <http://www.nci.nih.gov/cancerinfo>
ThriveOnline 12 June 2001 <http://thriveonline.oxygen.com/medical/library/article/003933.html>.
Tish Davidson, A.M.
QUESTIONS TO ASK THE DOCTOR
- What kind of biopsy are you going to do?
- What will this tell me about my cancer?
- If you are doing an open biopsy, will you be removing any other structures at the same time?
- If you are, how will that affect my recovery from the operation?
—Small, bean-shaped organs located throughout the lymphatic system. The lymph nodes store special cells that can trap cancer cells or bacteria that are traveling through the body in lymph. Also called lymph glands.
—Small white blood cells that bear the major responsibility for carrying out the activities of the immune system; they number about 1 trillion.
—Cancerous. Cells tend to reproduce without normal controls on growth and form tumors or invade other tissues.
—An organ located at the left side of the stomach that acts as a reservoir for blood cells and produces lymphocytes and other products involved in fighting infection.
—An organ near the base of the neck that produces cells that fight infection. It is at its largest at puberty, then declines in size and function during adult life.
—Small masses of tissue at the back of the throat.