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Cancer. 2002 Jul 15;95(2):354-60.

Implications of lymphatic drainage to unusual sentinel lymph node sites in patients with primary cutaneous melanoma.

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Department of Surgical Oncology, The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas 77030, USA.



Sentinel lymphadenectomy reliably identifies the first site(s) of regional lymphatic drainage and, therefore, the most likely lymph nodes to contain occult metastasis in patients with primary cutaneous melanoma. Although in most patients lymphatic drainage from the primary melanoma first reaches a standard lymph node basin, a sentinel lymph node (SLN) may be identified in an unusual location. The objective of this study was to determine the frequency and significance of unusual sentinel lymph node drainage patterns in a large cohort of patients with primary melanoma.


The records of 1145 consecutive primary melanoma patients who underwent SLN biopsy were reviewed. Preoperative lymphoscintigraphy was performed in all patients with truncal melanoma and in many patients with distal extremity lesions. Unusual lymph node sites were defined as epitrochlear, popliteal, or ectopic/interval (in-transit or any other nonstandard lymph node-bearing area).


At least one SLN was harvested in 1117 patients (98%). SLN biopsy of an unusual lymph node site was attempted in 59 patients (5%). Successful intraoperative localization and biopsy was performed in 54 (92%) of 59 patients for a total of 56 unusual sites. Of these, 7 (13%) were popliteal, 8 (14%) were epitrochlear, and 41 (73%) were ectopic/interval. Preoperative lymphoscintigraphy was performed in 41 of these 54 patients and correctly identified unusual SLN locations in 12 (29%); the majority of unusual SLNs were identified only with the assistance of the intraoperative gamma probe. In four patients (7%), the unusual lymph node site was the only site from which SLNs were harvested. In the remaining 50 patients (93%), biopsies were performed on SLNs from both unusual sites and from a standard lymph node basin. Among the 54 patients who underwent a SLN biopsy of an unusual nodal site, 7 (13%) had lymph node metastases in that location. In four of the seven patients, the only positive SLN was from the unusual site.


Sentinel lymphatic drainage patterns include lymph node-bearing areas that may be outside established standard lymph node basins and may represent the only site of regional lymph node metastases. Although preoperative lymphoscintigraphy may assist in the identification of unusual SLN drainage patterns, intraoperative use of the gamma probe is recommended to identify accurately and completely all sites of regional lymph node drainage.

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