Breast cancer patients with a negative axillary ultrasound may have clinically significant nodal metastasis

Stephen Keelan, Anna Heeney, Eithne Downey, Aisling Hegarty, Trudi Roche, Colm Power, Neasa Ni Mhuircheartaigh, Deirdre Duke, Jennifer Kerr, Niamh Hambly, Arnold Hill
Breast Cancer Research and Treatment 2021 April 10

INTRODUCTION: The non-invasive nature of the preoperative axillary ultrasound (AUS) fits the current trend of increasingly conservative axillary management. Recent publications suggest that early disease patients with clinically and radiologically negative axillae do not require sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB). This study aims to determine the true extent of axillary node disease in negative preoperative AUS patients.

METHODS: A 10-year breast cancer registry was reviewed to identify women with pathologically confirmed T1-2 invasive breast cancer and a negative preoperative AUS. Patients who received neoadjuvant chemotherapy were excluded. Combined positive lymph node count of SLNB ± ALND was used to determine total nodal burden (TNB). Axillae were classified into low nodal burden (LNB) defined as 1-2 positive nodes and high nodal burden (HNB) defined as ≥ 3 positive nodes.

RESULTS: 762 patients with negative AUS were included. There were 46.9% and 53.0% T1 and T2 tumours, respectively. 76.9% were node negative (0 LN +), 18.9% had LNB (1-2 LN +) and 4.2% had HNB (≥ 3LN +). Specifically, HNB disease was seen in 2% of T1 tumours and 6.2 % of T2 tumours with a negative AUS. In multivariate analysis, T2 strongly associated with ≥ 3 positive ALNs (OR 2.66 CI 1.09-6.51 p = 0.03) as did lymphovascular invasion (OR 3.56 CI 1.52-8.30 p =  < 0.01).

CONCLUSION: This study shows that AUS in its current form cannot exclude HNB axillary metastasis to the extent of eliminating the need for surgical staging of the axilla. This may impact axillary local-regional recurrence and disease-free survival. We caution that a negative AUS has a rate of 4.2% of HNB. Therefore, in cases of negative AUS with a T2 tumour, we advocate continued use of SLNB.

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