Aims: The sentinel lymph node procedure enables selective targeting of the first draining lymph node, where the initial metastases will form. A negative sentinel node (SN) predicts the absence of tumour metastases in the other regional lymph nodes with high accuracy. This means that in the case of a negative SN, regional lymph node dissection is no longer necessary. Besides saving costs, this will prevent many side-effects of lymph node dissection. The aim of this study was to evaluate the reliability of intraoperative cytological and frozen section investigation of the SN to detect metastases. This would allow the axillary lymph node dissection to be performed in the same session as the SN procedure and the excision of the primary tumour in case of a positive SN.
Methods and results: Seventy-four SNs were detected by gamma probe detection of nanocolloid and visual localization of Patent Blue accumulations in 54 women with stage T1-2N0M0 invasive breast cancer. The identified SN were immediately investigated by frozen section and imprint cytological investigation. Diagnoses were confirmed on the paraffin material, and in case of negative frozen section and paraffin haematoxylin and eosin sections, skip sections and immunohistochemistry were performed. Thirty-one SNs (42%) contained metastases, of which 27 were detected by the frozen section procedure (sensitivity 87%). There were no false positives (specificity 100%). The sensitivity of the imprints was 62% with a specificity of 100%. When evaluating the data per patient, for the frozen section procedure the sensitivity was 91% and the specificity 100%, and for the imprints, the sensitivity was 63% and the specificity 100%. There were no SNs in which the imprints showed metastases and the frozen section did not.
Conclusions: Intraoperative frozen section analysis is a reliable procedure by which a high percentage of sentinel lymph node metastases can be detected in breast cancer patients without false positive results. This allows the surgeon to perform an immediate axillary lymph node dissection in case of positive SNs. In up to 10% of cases, the final paraffin sections will reveal micrometastases that were not detected by the frozen section, and in these patients axillary lymph node dissection will have to be performed in a second session. The imprint method is significantly less sensitive than the frozen section but may be used as an alternative when frozen section is not possible.