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Location of sentinel lymph nodes in patients with cutaneous melanoma: new insights into lymphatic anatomy.

BACKGROUND: Accurate staging of melanoma patients by sentinel node (SN) biopsy can be achieved only if all SNs draining a given melanoma site are identified and removed for detailed histologic examination. Lymphoscintigraphy with a radiolabeled colloid provides an objective and reliable method of locating SNs and demonstrates that confident prediction of their location is not possible on clinical grounds.

STUDY DESIGN: Lymphatic drainage pathways demonstrated by preoperative lymphoscintigraphy for 1,759 patients with primary cutaneous melanomas were reviewed, and locations of SNs in these patients were documented. An SN was defined as any node receiving direct lymphatic drainage from a primary melanoma site.

RESULTS: In many instances the cutaneous lymphatic drainage pathways were found to be at variance with longheld concepts of lymphatic anatomy. Several new pathways were identified, draining to SNs in unexpected sites. These included triangular intermuscular space SNs (from upper back and, rarely, upper limb primaries), paraaortic and retroperitoneal SNs (from upper and lower back primaries), and costal margin SNs with onward drainage to internal mammary nodes (from periumbilical primaries). Occasional drainage to node fields on the opposite side of the body was noted from head, neck, and trunk primaries, and drainage to interval nodes (by definition, SNs) outside recognized lymph node fields was also observed.

CONCLUSIONS: Knowledge of the possibility of these unusual lymphatic drainage patterns and SN sites should help to ensure the accuracy and completeness of SN identification. Preoperative lymphoscintigraphy to definitively locate SNs is recommended for every patient undergoing an SN biopsy procedure.

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