Lymphatic mapping of the breast: locating the sentinel lymph nodes

World J Surg. 2001 Jun;25(6):789-93. doi: 10.1007/s00268-001-0006-7. Epub 2001 May 14.


When the concept of sentinel lymph node biopsy was described in patients with melanoma, researchers quickly started to use lymphatic mapping techniques in breast cancer patients in an attempt to locate the sentinel node in the axilla. We have been performing mammary lymphoscintigraphy in this role for 6 years and have now studied 159 patients. Like others, we have found that most breast cancers (93%) have lymphatic drainage that includes the axilla, and we have found an average of 1.4 axillary sentinel nodes in these patients. Surgical biopsy of the axillary sentinel nodes accurately staged the node field in 96% of patients. We have also found, however, that the pattern of lymphatic drainage from the cancer site is unpredictable; and in 49% of patients lymphatic drainage occurred across the center line of the breast to axillary or internal mammary sentinel nodes. In more than half of our patients (56%) lymphatic drainage occurred to lymph nodes outside the axilla including the internal mammary (45%), supraclavicular (13%), and interpectoral and intramammary interval nodes (12%). These nodes are also sentinel nodes, and their presence indicates that a sentinel node biopsy procedure that stages only the status of the axillary lymph nodes has the potential to understage about half the patients with breast cancer. High quality lymphoscintigraphy allows accurate mapping of peritumoral lymphatic drainage in most patients with breast cancer. It is possible that in the future accurate nodal staging in each individual will involve biopsy of all sentinel lymph nodes, regardless of their location.

MeSH terms

  • Axilla
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lymph Nodes / diagnostic imaging*
  • Lymph Nodes / pathology
  • Male
  • Neoplasm Staging
  • Radionuclide Imaging
  • Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy*