Background: Intraoperative lymphatic mapping and identification of the first draining lymph node (the sentinel node) may allow some patients with breast cancer to avoid the morbidity of formal axillary clearance. The aim of this pilot study was to establish the reliability of the technique in predicting axillary node status.
Methods: Sixty-eight consecutive patients with breast cancer, 38 undergoing mastectomy and 30 wide local excision, were included. Some 2-4 ml of 2.5 per cent Patent Blue dye was injected into adjacent breast tissue on the axillary side of the primary tumour. After 5-10 min, the axilla was explored. Blue-stained lymphatics were dissected to the sentinel node, which was removed for frozen-section examination, followed by routine histology. Formal axillary dissection was then completed.
Results: A sentinel lymph node was identified successfully in 56 (82 per cent) of 68 patients. Histology of the sentinel node accurately predicted axillary node status in 53 (95 per cent). There were three false negatives (5 per cent). In each case, only a single non-sentinel node was tumour positive. Sensitivity and specificity were 83 and 100 per cent respectively.
Conclusion: This technique would allow a selective policy of formal axillary dissection in only node-positive patients; however, further experience and refinement are needed.