Introduction: Accurate staging of lymph node involvement is a critical aspect of the initial management of nonmetastatic non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). We sought to determine whether the current N descriptors should be maintained or revised for the next edition of the international lung cancer staging system.
Methods: A retrospective international lung cancer database was developed and analyzed. Anatomical location of lymph node involvement was defined by the Naruke (for Japanese data) and American Thoracic Society (for non-Japanese data) nodal maps. Survival was calculated by the Kaplan-Meier method, and prognostic groups were assessed by Cox regression analysis.
Results: Current N0 to N3 descriptors defined distinct prognostic groups for both clinical and pathologic staging. Exploratory analyses indicated that lymph node stations could be grouped together into six "zones": peripheral or hilar for N1, and upper or lower mediastinal, aortopulmonary, and subcarinal for N2 nodes. Among patients undergoing resection without induction therapy, there were three distinct prognostic groups: single-zone N1, multiple-zone N1 or single N2, and multiple-zone N2 disease. Nevertheless, there were insufficient data to determine whether the N descriptors should be subdivided (e.g., N1a, N1b, N2a, N2b).
Conclusions: Current N descriptors should be maintained in the NSCLC staging system. Prospective studies are needed to validate amalgamating lymph node stations into zones and subdividing N descriptors.