• fine needle aspiration cytology;
  • grade 1 breast carcinoma;
  • cytodiagnosis;
  • absolute sensitivity;
  • complete sensitivity

Background:  Fine-needle aspiration cytology (FNAC) of both palpable and non-palpable breast carcinomas has a high accuracy and sensitivity in dedicated centres. It is generally thought that low-grade carcinomas have a distinctly lower sensitivity due to discrete cellular atypia that may be difficult to appreciate. Grade 1 carcinomas make up about 45% of screening-detected breast carcinomas and about 20% of symptomatic breast cancers. The aim of this study was to evaluate the diagnostic sensitivity of grade 1 carcinomas and identify the critical features in the cytological diagnostic work-up of these tumours.

Methods:  There were FNAC smears from 494 histologically confirmed grade 1 carcinomas diagnosed during 1996–2004. The cytological diagnoses were compared with the histology.

Results:  A definitive malignant diagnosis (absolute sensitivity) was given in 382 cases (77.3%). Equivocal or suspicious diagnoses were given in 75 (15.2%), benign or probably benign (false negative) in 24 (4.8%). Thirteen cases (2.6%) were unsatisfactory. Complete sensitivity was 92.7%. Invasive ductal carcinomas comprised 81.3% of all cases; absolute sensitivity for these was 80.9%. Invasive lobular and tubular carcinomas comprised 7.3% and 5.9% of cases, respectively; absolute sensitivity for these diagnosis was 50.0% and 57.1%, respectively, significantly lower than for other subtypes (P ≤ 0.0001) whereas the difference for complete sensitivity was less but still significant (P = 0.017). Absolute and complete sensitivities were lower for tumours less than 1 cm size compared with more than 1 cm (P ≤ 0.00001).

Conclusion:  Preoperative FNAC diagnosis of grade 1 breast carcinoma has a high sensitivity, especially in ductal carcinomas. Invasive lobular and tubular carcinomas were less likely to receive a definite preoperative diagnosis. The main reason for not reaching a definitive malignant diagnosis was sampling error due to small tumours less than 1 cm in diameter, irrespective of tumour subtype.