Objective: To define preliminary guidelines for the use of lymphatic mapping techniques in patients with breast cancer.
Summary background data: Lymphatic mapping techniques have the potential of changing the standard of surgical care of patients with breast cancer.
Methods: Four hundred sixty-six consecutive patients with newly diagnosed breast cancer underwent a prospective trial of intraoperative lymphatic mapping using a combination of vital blue dye and filtered technetium-labeled sulfur colloid. A sentinel lymph node (SLN) was defined as a blue node and/or a hot node with a 10:1 ex vivo gamma probe ratio of SLN to non-SLN. All SLNs were bivalved, step-sectioned, and examined with routine hematoxylin and eosin (H&E) stains and immunohistochemical stains for cytokeratin. A cytokeratin-positive SLN was defined as any SLN with a defined cluster of positive-staining cells that could be confirmed histologically on H&E sections.
Results: Fine-needle aspiration (FNA) or stereotactic core biopsy was used to diagnose 195 of the 422 patients (46.2%) with breast cancer; 227 of 422 patients (53.8%) were diagnosed by excisional biopsy. The SLN was successfully identified in 440 of 466 patients (94.4%). Failure to identify an SLN to the axilla intraoperatively occurred in 26 of 466 patients (5.6%). In all patients who failed lymphatic mappings, a complete axillary dissection was performed, and metastatic disease was documented in 4 of 26 (15.4%) of these patients. Of the 26 patients who failed lymphatic mapping, 11 of 227 (4.8%) were diagnosed by excisional biopsy and 15 of 195 (7.7%) were diagnosed by FNA or stereotactic core biopsy. Of interest, there was only one skip metastasis (defined as a negative SLN with higher nodes in the chain being positive) in a patient with prior excisional biopsy. A mean of 1.92 SLNs were harvested per patient. Twenty percent of the SLNs removed were positive for metastatic disease in 105 of 440 (23.8%) of the patients. Descriptive information on 844 SLNs was evaluated: 339 of 844 (40.2%) were hot, 272 of 844 (32.2%) were blue, and 233 of 844 (27.6%) were both hot and blue. At least one positive SLN was found in 4 of 87 patients (4.6%) with noninvasive (ductal carcinoma in situ) tumors. A greater incidence of positive SLNs was found in patients who had invasive tumors of increasing size: 18 of 112 patients (16%) with tumor size between 0.1 mm and 1 cm had positive SLNs. However, a significantly greater percentage of patients (43 of 131 [32.8%] with tumor size between 1 and 2 cm and 31 of 76 [40.8%] with tumor size between 2 and 5 cm) had positive SLNs. The highest incidence of positive SLNs was seen with patients of tumor size greater than 5 cm; in this group, 9 of 12 (75%) had a positive SLN (p < 0.001).
Conclusions: This study demonstrates that accurate SLN identification was obtained when all blue and hot lymph nodes were harvested as SLNs. Therefore, lymphatic mapping and SLN biopsy is most effective when a combination of vital blue dye and radiolabeled sulfur colloid is used. Furthermore, these data demonstrate that patients with ductal carcinoma in situ or small tumors exhibit a low but significant incidence of metastatic disease to the axillary lymph nodes and may benefit most from selective lymphadenectomy, avoiding the unnecessary complications of a complete axillary lymph node dissection.