Pros and Cons of Lymph Node Dissection for Treating Melanoma

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There are numerous pros and cons of lymph node dissection for treating melanoma.

When melanoma is on the skin, it can be effectively and permanently removed in most cases. Sometimes, however, it spreads (metastasizes) to other areas of the body, usually traveling first to the nearest lymph nodes in your armpit, neck, or groin. If your doctor suspects that this has happened, a test called a sentinel node biopsy will be performed to identify and remove the lymph node to which the cancer is likely to have spread from the primary tumor.

If your sentinel node biopsy is positive (contains cancerous cells), then it's decision time. Should you have all the other lymph nodes in this area removed, in a surgical procedure called completion lymph node dissection (CLND, or lymphadenectomy)? The idea is that a CLND ensures that the melanoma cells in all the other lymph nodes are removed, which then may prevent the disease from spreading farther.

Unfortunately, the evidence is inconclusive, so this decision is not straightforward, even for doctors. Here are some pros and cons to consider.

Pros of Lymph Node Dissection

1. A CLND helps to accurately determine the stage of the melanoma, which assists the doctor in making recommendations for post-surgery (adjuvant) treatment.

2. The overall number of nodes containing melanoma cells is a predictor of survival for patients who have stage III disease, and only a CLND can provide this information.

3. Some studies show that 20 percent of patients who undergo a CLND immediately after finding out they have a positive sentinel lymph node experience improved survival. This is especially true for patients who had intermediate-thickness tumors on their skin (1.2 to 3.5 mm).

4. By stopping the spread of melanoma at the lymph nodes, a CLND optimizes the chance for a cure. Even microscopic amounts of melanoma in lymph nodes can eventually progress over time to be significant and dangerous.

Cons Lymph Node Dissection

1. Complications of a CLND are significant and occur in up to 67 percent of patients, especially in those over 60. These include:

  • Build-up of fluid at the site of surgery (seroma)
  • Infection
  • Swelling of a limb affected by the removal of the lymph nodes (lymphedema)
  • Numbness, tingling, or pain in the surgical area
  • Breakdown (sloughing) of skin over the area

Although swelling after surgery can be prevented or controlled by use of antibiotics, elastic stockings, massage, and diuretics, it can be a debilitating complication.

2. The effectiveness of a CLND may depend on the size of the melanoma tumor. Small tumors (0.1 mm or less in diameter) in the sentinel lymph node may not ever lead to metastasis at all, so performing a CLND may not be necessary. A 2009 study showed that the survival and relapse rates of patients with these small tumors were the same as those who had no melanoma in their sentinel lymph node. Thus, these "low-risk" patients may be able to avoid a CLND and have the same outcome.

The Bottom Line

Electing to undergo a major surgical procedure such as a CLND is not a decision you should take lightly, especially if your biopsy shows only a small amount of melanoma in your lymph nodes. Many factors are involved, including the size and location of your primary melanoma, the results of the sentinel lymph node biopsy and other tests, and your age. You may find it helpful to seek out a second opinion.

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