Background: This study was performed to validate the prognostic significance of residual axillary lymph node metastases in patients with locally advanced breast cancer (LABC) treated with neoadjuvant chemotherapy and to analyze other clinicopathologic factors that might be independent predictors of disease-free survival (DFS) in an attempt to identify patients in whom axillary dissection might be omitted.
Methods: One hundred sixty-five assessable patients with LABC were treated in a prospective trial of neoadjuvant chemotherapy utilizing four cycles of 5-fluorouracil, doxorubicin, and cyclophosphamide. Responding patients were treated with segmental mastectomy and axillary dissection or modified radical mastectomy. Patients subsequently received additional chemotherapy followed by irradiation of the breast or chest wall and draining lymphatics. The median follow-up was 35 months.
Results: Clinical tumor response to neoadjuvant chemotherapy (P = 0.046) and the number of residual metastatic axillary lymph nodes found at axillary dissection (P = 0.05) were the only independent predictors of DFS. Patients with a complete clinical response had a predictably excellent DFS and those with no change or progressive disease had a poor DFS. In patients with a partial response, the number of residual metastatic lymph nodes further stratified patients with respect to DFS (P = 0.006).
Conclusions: Clinical response and residual metastatic axillary lymph nodes following neoadjuvant chemotherapy are important predictors of DFS. Patients with a clinically positive axilla following neoadjuvant chemotherapy should undergo axillary dissection to ensure local control. However, the benefit of axillary dissection in patients with a clinically negative axilla may be minimal if the axilla will be irradiated, and histologic staging does not affect subsequent systemic treatment. A prospective randomized trial of axillary dissection versus axillary radiotherapy in patients with a clinically negative axilla following neoadjuvant chemotherapy is presently under way to evaluate this hypothesis.