Does clearing of axillary lymph nodes contribute to accurate staging of breast carcinoma?
The major prognostic indicator in carcinoma of the breast is the presence of metastases in axillary lymph nodes. However, 25% of patients with negative axilliary nodes by standard pathologic techniques are dead of metastatic breast carcinoma within 10 years. "Clearing" of the axillary fat has been shown to increase the yield of lymph nodes. Forty-two pathologic Stage I and II breast carcinoma specimens were cleared following routine pathologic examination to determine whether stage was changed by the clearing procedure. A total of 857 lymph nodes were recovered from 42 patients by routine techniques. Clearing increased the number of nodes found by 30%, to 1114. In the 31 node-negative patients an additional 178 nodes were identified, increasing the mean number of nodes per patient from 20 to 26. The number of additional nodes found per specimen ranged from 0 to 19. None of the additional nodes identified contained metastases. In the node-positive patients, 79 additional nodes were found by clearing, including 33 with metastases. No change in stage resulted, although the mean number of nodes per patient was increased from 22 to 30. Although an occasional positive lymph node may be overlooked by manual dissection, the rarity of this event makes routine clearing of the axillary contents impractical for carcinoma of the breast except in a research setting. Whether this conclusion applies equally to other tumors and other lymph node groups requires further study.