Purpose: Although local excision can be curative in patients with early-stage rectal cancer, approximately 20 percent of patients will develop local recurrence, many as a result of unrecognized and unresected regional lymph node metastases. Our objective was to determine if standard pathologic factors can predict lymph node metastases in small intramural rectal cancers and provide a basis for patient selection for nonradical surgery.
Methods: Between June 1986 and September 1996, 318 patients with T1 or T2 rectal cancers underwent radical resection at our institution. Of these, 159 patients (48 T1 and 111 T2) were potentially eligible for curative local excision (< or =4 cm in size, < or =10 cm from the anal verge, no synchronous metastases), and the prevalence of lymph node metastases based on T stage and other pathologic factors was analyzed in this group.
Results: The overall frequency of lymph node metastasis was 15 percent (24/159 patients). T stage (T1, 10 percent; T2, 17 percent), differentiation (well-differentiated or moderately differentiated, 14 percent and poorly differentiated, 30 percent), and lymphatic vessel invasion (lymphatic vessel invasion-negative, 14 percent and lymphatic vessel invasion-positive, 33 percent) influenced the risk of lymph node metastasis. However, only blood vessel invasion (blood vessel invasion-negative, 13 percent and blood vessel invasion-positive, 33 percent) reached statistical significance as a single predictive factor (P=0.04). Tumors with no adverse pathologic features (low-risk group) had a lower overall frequency of lymph node metastasis (11 percent) compared with the remaining tumors (high-risk group, 31 percent; P=0.008). However, even in the most favorable group (T1 cancers with no adverse pathologic features) lymph node metastases were present in 7 percent of patients.
Conclusion: In rectal cancer patients potentially eligible for local excision, the overall risk of undetected and untreated lymph node metastases is considerable (15 percent). The use of pathologic factors alone after local excision does not reliably assure the absence of lymph node metastases.