Background: Axillary lymph node dissection for evaluation of the presence or absence of metastatic disease is the single most important prognostic factor for patients with newly diagnosed primary breast cancer. Recently, sentinel lymph node (SLN) biopsy is being investigated as an alternative to the evaluation of the entire axilla. We evaluated whether the application of multilevel sectioning and immunohistochemistry in SLNs will increase the accuracy of detection of metastatic deposits.
Methods: Between October 1998 and July 1999, 38 patients with breast carcinoma (25 ductal, 5 lobular, 4 tubular, and 4 mixed ductal and lobular) underwent successful SLN biopsy followed by complete axillary node dissection. Sentinel lymph nodes were localized with a combination of isosulfan blue dye and radionuclide colloid injection. Frozen sections and permanent sections of SLNs were examined. All negative SLNs were examined for micrometastases by 3 additional hematoxylin-eosin (H&E)-stained sections and immunohistochemistry with the cytokeratins AE1/AE3.
Results: Sentinel lymph nodes were successfully identified surgically in 38 (93%) of 41 patients. There was a 97% correlation between the results of the frozen sections and the permanent H&E-stained sections. Twelve (32%) of 38 patients showed evidence of metastatic disease in their SLN by routine H&E staining. In 7 (58%) of 12 patients with positive nodes, the sentinel node was the only positive node. The 26 patients with negative SLN examination by H&E were further analyzed for micrometastases; 5 (19%) were found to have metastatic deposits by immunohistochemistry. Of these patients, 2 were also converted to node positive by detection of micrometastatic disease by examination of the additional H&E levels.
Conclusions: Sentinel lymph nodes can be accurately identified in the axilla of breast cancer patients. Evaluation of SLNs provides reliable information representative of the status of the axilla in these patients. Immunohistochemistry and, to a lesser degree, detailed multilevel sectioning are able to further improve our ability to detect micrometastatic disease in SLNs of breast cancer patients.