Axillary lymph node dissection is still performed as a staging procedure since lymph node status is the most important prognostic factor in patients with breast cancer. Sentinel node biopsy may replace routine axillary lymphadenectomy, especially in patients with small breast cancers. This study investigated whether ultrasonographically guided fine-needle aspiration cytology (FNAC) of the axillary lymph nodes in clinically node-negative patients was an accurate staging procedure to select patients for sentinel node biopsy.
One hundred and eighty-five consecutive patients were included. All had axillary ultrasonography and detected nodes were categorized according to their dimensions and echo patterns. Ultrasonographically guided FNAC was carried out if technically possible. These results were compared with the results of the sentinel node biopsy and subsequent axillary dissection.
In 116 patients no lymph nodes were detected by ultrasonographic imaging. Of 69 patients with visible nodes, 31 had malignant cells on FNAC. There were no false-positive results. Some 87 of 185 patients had axillary metastases on definitive histological examination. Ultrasonography was sensitive in patients with extensive nodal involvement. Failure of the examination was caused by problems learning the method, difficulty in puncturing small lymph nodes and sampling error.
In patients without palpable axillary nodes, a sentinel node biopsy could be avoided in 17 per cent since ultrasonography combined with FNAC had already diagnosed axillary metastases. The method is particularly valuable in larger breast cancers. © 1999 British Journal of Surgery Society Ltd