Objective: To determine the incidence and prognostic significance of documented eradication of breast cancer axillary lymph node (ALN) metastases after neoadjuvant chemotherapy.
Summary background data: Neoadjuvant chemotherapy is the standard of care for patients with locally advanced breast cancer and is being evaluated in patients with earlier-stage operable disease.
Methods: One hundred ninety-one patients with locally advanced breast cancer and cytologically documented ALN metastases were treated in two prospective trials of doxorubicin-based neoadjuvant chemotherapy. Patients had breast surgery with level I and II axillary dissection followed by additional chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Nodal sections from 43 patients who were originally identified as having negative ALNs at surgery were reevaluated and histologically confirmed to be without metastases. An additional 1112 sections from these lymph node blocks were obtained; half were stained with an anticytokeratin antibody cocktail and analyzed. Survival was calculated using the Kaplan-Meier method.
Results: Of 191 patients with positive ALNs at diagnosis, 23% (43 patients) were converted to a negative axillary nodal status on histologic examination (median number of nodes removed = 16). Of the 43 patients with complete axillary conversion, 26% (n = 11) had N1 disease and 74% (n = 32) had N2 disease. On univariate analysis, patients with complete versus incomplete histologic axillary conversion were more likely to have initial estrogen-receptor-negative tumors, smaller primary tumors, and a complete pathologic response in the primary tumor. The 5-year disease-free survival rates were 87% in patients with preoperative eradication of axillary metastases and 51% for patients with residual nodal disease after neoadjuvant chemotherapy. Of the 39 patients with complete histologic conversion for whom nodal blocks were available, occult nodal metastases were found in additional nodal sections in 4 patients (10%). At a median follow-up of 61 months, the 5-year disease-free survival rates were 87% in patients without occult nodal metastases and 75% in patients with occult nodal metastases.
Conclusions: Neoadjuvant chemotherapy can completely clear the axilla of microscopic disease before surgery, and occult metastases are found in only 10% of patients with a histologically negative axilla. The results of this study have implications for the potential use of sentinel lymph node biopsy as an alternative to axillary dissection in patients treated with neoadjuvant chemotherapy.