Background: Up to 30% of patients with operable breast cancer and negative regional lymph nodes experience disease recurrence within 10 years. Serial sectioning and immunohistochemical staining of these nodes have revealed 9% to 30% occult metastases.
Methods: Sentinel nodes from 200 patients with T1 and T2 invasive breast carcinoma were step-sectioned at 2- to 3-mm intervals, fixed in 10% formalin, and embedded in paraffin. Sections were taken from the face of the blocks and stained with hematoxylin and eosin (H&E). The blocks were then cut completely, and sections at .25-mm intervals were stained with cytokeratin and examined.
Results: Tumor metastases were found in 34 patients when the sentinel nodes were examined at 2- to 3-mm intervals and in an additional 51 patients when the nodes were sectioned in their entirety at .25-mm intervals and stained with cytokeratin, bringing the total number of patients with metastases to 85. Of the 51 patients whose metastases were detected by 2- to 3-mm sectioning and cytokeratin staining, 27 had isolated tumor cells and 24 had clusters of innumerable malignant cells, all of which were visualized and confirmed by H&E staining of the adjacent sections.
Conclusions: Histologic examination of sentinel nodes of patients with invasive breast cancer sectioned at 2- to 3-mm intervals and stained with H&E significantly underestimates nodal metastases. Sectioning of the entire sentinel nodes at .25-mm intervals and staining with cytokeratin detects metastases as either isolated cells or as clusters.