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The axillary nodes, or axillary lymph nodes, are bean-shaped glands that are part of the lymphatic system in the body. They are located in the armpit area, and circulate lymph fluid into the lymph nodes. The lymph fluid is a yellowish-colored fluid that is part of the blood.
Lymph fluid contains white blood cells, called lymphocytes, that fight infection by destroying bacteria and foreign particles. While in the lymph nodes, the lymphocytes work to filter the toxins out of the bloodstream. Once the lymph fluid is filtered, it can safely be recirculated back into the blood stream without these toxins entering the blood stream and causing infection.
In each node are vessels that work to carry the lymph fluid into and out of the node. Unfiltered lymph fluid is carried into the nodes by afferent lymphatic vessels. Once the fluid has been filtered, the fluid is returned to the circulatory system by the efferent lymphatic vessels. The 20 to 30 axillary nodes range from a few hundredths of an inch (a few millimeters) to 0.39 to 0.78 inch (1 to 2 cm) at their normal size. They are found in five groups: the lateral or brachial lymph nodes, the anterior or pectoral lymph nodes, the posterior or subscapular lymph nodes, the central lymph nodes, and the medial or subclavicular lymph nodes.
The brachial nodes contain four to six glands, and serve to drain most of the arm, with the exception of the part that receives circulation from the cephalic vein. The pectoral nodes contain four to five glands, which drain the front and side thoracic walls along with part of the breasts. The subscapular nodes contain six or seven glands, and drain the skin and muscles of the lower back and neck and also the back thoracic wall. The central nodes are a group of three or four nodes that drain fluid received from the lateral, anterior, and posterior groups, while the subclavicular nodes drain fluid received from all the other nodes and sometimes the breast.
The axillary nodes often play a large role in breast cancer. Breast tumors can release cancer cells into the lymphatic system, which can become trapped in the nearby axillary nodes. If cancer cells are present in the lymph nodes, the likelihood of metastic breast cancer rises.
In order to check for the presence of cancer cells in the axillary nodes, an axillary lymph node dissection (ALND) is performed, often during a mastectomy or lumpectomy. The surgeon will remove some or all of the nodes, which are then sent to a laboratory where they are screened for cancer cells. If the results come back negative, they are free of cancer cells. If the results come back positive, they contain the cells. This diagnosis is important because it plays a part in determining the stage of the breast cancer and further treatment options.
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