Optimal management of the axillary lymphatics in breast cancer patients remains a contentious subject. Axillary recurrence, while infrequent, may have very significant clinical consequences in the affected patient. Axillary sampling, partial and total axillary lymphadenectomy, radiotherapy, and surgery plus radiotherapy are discussed with attention to efficacy in prevention of axillary recurrence, accuracy of nodal staging, and morbidity. The incidence of axillary recurrence decreases and accuracy of staging increases with the number of lymph nodes resected. There is little difference in incidence of morbidity between partial and total axillary lymphadenectomy. Radiotherapy is not as effective as lymphadenectomy for regional disease control and, when administered following a surgical staging procedure, increases the risk of lymphedema of the ipsilateral upper extremity and, in patients undergoing breast-conserving surgery, the ipsilateral breast. We believe that total axillary lymphadenectomy provides optimal regional disease control and axillary staging with morbidity comparable to that of partial lymphadenectomy. © 1992 Wiley-Liss, Inc.