Sentinel Node Biopsy explained

Why is a new treatment needed?

Every day in the UK, 31 people receive the devastating news that they have been diagnosed with a head and neck cancer.

An innovative procedure, Sentinel Node Biopsy (SNB), has been developed to significantly reduce the impact of surgery.

Many current surgical practices for head and neck cancers are invasive and impact on the physical condition of the patient’s face. This can affect their quality of life severely due to disfigurement and scarring. In addition, such practices can negatively impact upon the vital structures within the head and neck area - and the senses of sight, hearing, taste and smell, as well as functions of breathing, swallowing and speech.

SNB is the result of over 15 years’ development by pioneering British surgeons, based on research of nearly 500 cases. It saves over 70% of patients who are diagnosed with the early stages of the disease from having the major surgery of a neck dissection. It spares vital glands and helps patients get back to a normal life more quickly, compared to traditional neck dissection techniques.

There is an alternative: Sentinel Node Biopsy (SNB)

This practice, pioneered by Professor Mark McGurk of University College Hospital London, is the result of 15 years’ development and is based on the findings of nearly 500 cases. Sentinel Node Biopsy locates the nodes in the neck that will contain migrating cancer cells. Harvesting three or four nodes involves very minimal surgery and in over 70% of patients when no cancer cells are present, this is the only neck surgery required. 

How is HNCF driving the adoption of SNB?

The Head and Neck Cancer Foundation has set up a national course with the Royal College of Surgeons in order to train more surgeons throughout England to perform the procedure. It has also presented a consensus conference to reduce the barriers to use of SNB around the world.

The charity has raised money to provide the specialised cameras needed to carry out Sentinel Node Biopsy and reduce the risk of missing important nodes.

HNCF Trustee Dr Clare Schilling has also extended the use of SNB into the throat to address oropharynx and HPV positive tumours.

SNB surgeon Clare Schilling

Frequently asked questions

Sentinel Node Biopsy has been endorsed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), so can be adopted by both NHS and private practitioners. With growing public awareness of Sentinel Node Biopsy, we anticipate that practitioners should and must adapt to the patients’ increased demand for the procedure.

How receptive is the NHS to SNB?

We find many professionals in the NHS and private practice are curious to learn about Sentinel Node Biopsy and are open to changing the way they operate on head and neck cancers.

What are the long-term benefits of SNB?

Sentinel Node Biopsy cuts down the time spent locating and operating on head and neck cancers, improving the accuracy of surgery and minimising the long-term impact on patients. It can also reduce the time patients spend in the health system, freeing up time to devote to other cases.

Why is early detection so important?

It is essential to know what warning signs or symptoms to look for, as the quicker the diagnosis, the better the outcome is for patients. Currently, about 60% of patients are diagnosed late with stages three or four of the disease, and head and neck cancers can spread really quickly. It’s not enough to rely on a six-monthly visit to your dentist to identify the problem. It’s imperative to check your mouth every three months for symptoms, but more regularly if you think something is wrong and have a low threshold for seeking help from your doctor or dentist.

Can I insist on having SNB treatment if I am diagnosed?

If diagnosed with a head or neck cancer, you can insist that your surgeon explains SNB treatment clearly, with its benefits. If they can’t provide the SNB procedure then insist that they refer you on to a team that can offer this service.

View all of the UK hospitals offering SNB

SNB Hospitals

Help us fund the equipment and training needed for SNB