Background: Sentinel lymph node (SN) biopsy will increasingly replace axillary lymph node dissection (ALND) for staging in breast cancer. For daily practice, examination of the SN by serial sectioning (SS) and/or immunohistochemistry (IHC) is being promoted. Use of these techniques may result into stage migration due to the increased detection of micro-metastases. The consequence may be overshooting of patients with adjuvant therapy, as the prognostic relevance of (small) micro-metastases and isolated tumor cells is unclear.
Methods: The prognostic impact of micro-metastases is determined by reviewing ALND studies with a follow up of at least 5 years, including more than 100 patients, before the SN era. Furthermore, studies in which conventionally haematoxylin-eosin (H&E) negative SNs are investigated for occult metastases by SS and/or IHC are reviewed.
Results: In only one of eight studies, occult metastases were an independent risk factor for reduced survival. The outcome is dependent on the size of the nodal metastasis. IHC and SS as used in the SN procedure indeed induce a shift from pNO to pN1a (according to TNM).
Conclusion: By the thorough pathologic examination of the SN, isolated tumor cells and micro-metastases are more frequently detected. We propose to classify small micro-metastases (<0.5 mm) in a separate pN1a(min) category (min for minimal) to prevent stage migration. As the prognostic relevance of isolated tumor cells and (small) micrometastases has not been proven, the value of adjuvant therapy can be questioned for patients with otherwise good prognostic factors.