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Sentinel lymph node dissection (SLND) is an important procedure in the staging of patients with cutaneous melanoma. As opposed to breast cancers, which may have lymphatic spread in a random manner, skin melanomas have a straightforward lymphatic flow that can be mapped. The metastases rarely skip to higher lymph nodes; therefore, an SLND can provide the first evidence of metastatic spread of the melanoma. This operation is indicated in patients who do not have palpable regional lymph nodes. The original melanoma on histologic studies following wide excision should be of intermediate or greater thickness (> 1 mm). If thinner, the melanoma should have associated high risk factors such as ulceration. Additional risk factors to be considered are age, site, Clark's level of invasion, and gender. An SNLD that uses both radionuclide and blue dye is highly accurate in finding positive lymph nodes. It allows a focused pathologic examination by the pathologist with both routine hematoxylin and eosin (H&E), plus immunohistochemical staining on the lymph nodes that are most likely to contain metastases. Finally, an SLND should be considered prior to a wide excision of the primary melanoma site. This is especially important if a rotational skin flap is planned for closure, as the resultant scar will alter the dermal lymphatic flow.

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In the example shown (Figure 1), the cutaneous melanoma was excised from the midportion of the patient's back. This is considered a watershed area—that is to say, the lymphatic drainage may go to either axilla or groin. Accordingly, a preoperative scintigram is required to demonstrate which lymphatic basin receives the lymphatic drainage from the tumor site. The most common areas are the axillary and inguinal regions for extremity or truncal lesions and cervical or supraclavicular regions for head and neck primaries. Other sites include deep iliac, hypogastric, and obturator regions and the popliteal or epitrochlear regions for legs and arms, respectively. Last, ectopic sites are also possible.

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The skin must be cleared of any active infections, as must the excision site for the melanoma. Preparation, inspection, and monitoring of the radionuclide solution must be coordinated with the nuclear medicine staff.

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A few hours before operation, the patient is injected with a radionuclide solution intradermally about the perimeter of the surgical site, using sterile technique. This may be done ...

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