Axillary staging of breast cancer: what the radiologist should know

Radiographics. 2013 Oct;33(6):1589-612. doi: 10.1148/rg.336125060.


Identifying the presence of axillary node and internal mammary node metastases in patients with invasive breast cancer is critical for determining prognosis and for deciding on appropriate treatment. Sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) is the definitive method to exclude axillary metastases. Patients with positive SLNB results generally undergo axillary lymph node dissection (ALND). The benefit of preoperative identification of axillary metastases is that it allows the surgeon to proceed directly to ALND and to avoid an unnecessary SLNB and the need for a second surgical procedure involving the axillary nodes. Knowledge of the important anatomic landmarks of the axilla is important in finding and accurately reporting suspicious lymph nodes. The pathologic features of nodal metastases illuminate the imaging appearances of these nodes, as depicted with all modalities. Ultrasonography (US) is the primary imaging modality for evaluating axillary nodes. Morphologic criteria, such as cortical thickening, hilar effacement, and nonhilar cortical blood flow, are more important than size criteria in the identification of metastases. US-guided lymph node sampling, especially with core biopsy, is invaluable in confirming the presence of a metastasis in a suspicious node. Core biopsy has been shown to be equal in safety to fine needle aspiration and has a significantly lower false-negative rate. Magnetic resonance imaging is also useful, with the added benefit of providing a global view of both axillae. Computed tomography and radionuclide imaging play a lesser role in imaging the axilla. Preoperative image-based identification and sampling of abnormal lymph nodes that have a high positive predictive value for metastases is an extremely important component in the management of patients with invasive breast cancer.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Axilla / pathology*
  • Biopsy, Fine-Needle
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Diagnostic Imaging*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lymph Node Excision
  • Lymphatic Metastasis / pathology*
  • Neoplasm Invasiveness / pathology
  • Neoplasm Staging