Background: Axillary lymph node status is a powerful prognostic factor in breast carcinoma; however, complications after axillary lymph node dissection are common. Sentinel lymph node biopsy is an alternative staging procedure. The sentinel lymph node postulate is that tumor cells migrating from the primary tumor colonize one or a few lymph nodes before colonizing subsequent lymph nodes. To validate this hypothesis, the distribution of occult and nonoccult metastases in sentinel and nonsentinel lymph nodes was evaluated.
Methods: Original pathology material was reviewed from 431 patients enrolled on a multicenter validation study of sentinel lymph node biopsy in breast carcinoma patients. Paraffin embedded tissue blocks of sentinel and nonsentinel lymph nodes were obtained for 214 lymph node negative patients. Additional sections from 100 and 200 microm deeper into the paraffin block were examined for the presence of occult metastatic carcinoma. Both routine and cytokeratin immunohistochemical stains were employed.
Results: Metastases were identified in 15.9% of sentinel lymph nodes and 4.2% of nonsentinel lymph nodes (odds ratio [OR] 4.3[ P < 0.001]; 95% confidence interval [95% CI], 3.5-5.4). Occult metastases were identified in 4. 09% of sentinel lymph nodes and 0.35% of nonsentinel lymph nodes (OR 12.3 [P < 0.001]; 95% CI, 5.6-28.6). The overall case conversion rate was 10.3%. All the occult metastases identified were < or = 1 mm in greatest individual dimension. The likelihood (OR) of metastases in nonsentinel lymph nodes was 13.4 times higher for sentinel lymph node positive than for sentinel lymph node negative patients (P < 0. 001; 95% CI, 6.7-28.1).
Conclusions: The distribution of occult and nonoccult metastases in axillary lymph nodes validates the sentinel lymph node hypothesis. In addition, pathology review of cases confirmed the authors' previously reported finding that the sentinel lymph nodes are predictive of the final axillary lymph node status. Occult metastatic disease is more likely to be identified in sentinel lymph nodes, allowing future studies to focus attention on one or a few sentinel lymph nodes. However, the relation between occult metastatic disease in sentinel lymph nodes, disease free survival, and overall survival must be evaluated prior to endorsing the intensive analysis of sentinel lymph nodes in routine practice. [See editorial on pages 971-7, this issue.]
Copyright 2000 American Cancer Society.