Sentinel lymph node (SLN) biopsy originally was described as a means of identifying lymph node metastases in malignant melanoma and breast carcinoma. The use of SLN biopsy in patients with oral and oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma and clinically N0 necks was investigated to determine whether the pathology of the SLN reflected that of the neck.
Patients undergoing elective neck dissections for head and neck squamous cell carcinoma accessible to injection were enrolled into our study. Sentinel lymph node biopsy was performed after blue dye and radiocolloid injection. Preoperative lymphoscintigraphy and the perioperative use of a gamma probe identified radioactive SLNs; visualization of blue stained lymphatics identified blue SLNs. A neck dissection completed the surgical procedure, and the pathology of the SLN was compared with that of the remaining neck dissection.
Sentinel lymph node biopsy was performed on 40 cases with clinically N0 necks. Twenty were pathologically clear of tumor and 20 contained subclinical metastases. SLNs were found in 17 necks with pathologic disease and contained metastases in 16. The sentinel lymph node was the only lymph node containing tumor in 12 of 16.
The SLN, in head and neck carcinomas accessible to injection without anesthesia, is an accurate reflector of the status of the regional lymph nodes, when found in patients with early tumors. Sentinel lymph nodes may be found in clinically unpredictable sites, and SLN biopsy may aid in identifying the clinically N0 patient with early lymph node disease. If SLNs cannot be located in the neck, an elective lymph node dissection should be considered. Cancer 2001;91:2077–83. © 2001 American Cancer Society.