Lymph Node Biopsy

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Lymph Node Biopsy



A lymph node biopsy is a procedure in which all or part of a lymph node is removed and examined to determine if there is cancer within the node.


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.


Women who are pregnant should inform their doctor before a lymph node biopsy, although pregnancy will not affect the results.


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,
Lymph node biopsy is a procedure in which a sample of lymph node tissue is removed for laboratory analysis. It is generally performed on an outpatient basis.
Lymph node biopsy is a procedure in which a sample of lymph node tissue is removed for laboratory analysis. It is generally performed on an outpatient basis.
(Illustration by Electronic Illustrators Group.)
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.

Normal results

Normal lymph nodes are small and flat. When examined under the microscope, they show no signs of cancer or infection.

Abnormal results

Abnormal lymph nodes are usually enlarged and contain cancerous (malignant) cells and/or show signs of infection.



American Cancer Society. 1599 Clifton Road NE, Atlanta, GA 30329. 800(ACS)-2345).
Cancer Information Service. National Cancer Institute. Building 31, Room 10A19, 9000 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20892. (800)4-CANCER.


ThriveOnline June 12, 2001.

Key terms

Lymph nodes — 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.
Lymphocytes — Small white blood cells that bear the major responsibility for carrying out the activities of the immune system; they number about 1 trillion.
Malignant — Cancerous. Cells tend to reproduce without normal controls on growth and form tumors or invade other tissues.
Spleen — 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.
Thymus — 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.
Tonsils — Small masses of tissue at the back of the throat.
References in periodicals archive ?
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1-3) In this article, we report a 13-year-old boy with prolonged fever, weight loss, hepatosplenomegaly, and generalized lymphadenopathy who was diagnosed to have KFD by lymph node biopsy.
The panel heard evidence from Alrawi's colleagues praising his "excellent skills as a doctor" and his specialist work in sentinel lymph node biopsy and melanoma treatment.
The Fluorescence Imaging for Robotic Endometrial Sentinel lymph node biopsy (FIRES) trial was a prospective trial evaluating the performance characteristics of SLN biopsy in women with clinical stage 1 endometrial cancer at 10 sites in the United States.
1] These shifts include the transition from routine axillary lymph node dissection (ALND) to sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) in node-negative patients, and the transition from routine mastectomy to breast-conserving therapy.
In the mid-nineties, Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy (SLNB) was introduced for staging in breast cancer patients.
The company said the Lymphoseek product is used for lymphatic mapping, lymph node biopsy and the diagnosis of metastatic spread to lymph nodes for the staging of cancer in North America.
The attributes of site of lymph node biopsy were; supra-clavicular, cervical, axillary, right mediastinal and submandibular.
Sentinel lymph node biopsy in breast cancer: ten-year results of a randomized controlled study.