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Breast Cancer Patients Treated Without Axillary Surgery: Clinical Implications and Biologic Analysis

Greco, Marco MD*; Agresti, Roberto MD*; Cascinelli, Natale MD; Casalini, Patrizia PhD; Giovanazzi, Riccardo MD*; Maucione, Antonio MD§; Tomasic, Gorana MD; Ferraris, Cristina MD*; Ammatuna, Mario MD§; Pilotti, Silvana MD; Menard, Sylvie PhD

This Month’S Feature

Objective To evaluate the impact of breast carcinoma (T1–2N0) surgery without axillary dissection on axillary and distant relapses, and to evaluate the usefulness of a panel of pathobiologic parameters determined from the primary tumor, independent of axillary nodal status, in planning adjuvant treatment.

Methods In a prospective nonrandomized pilot study, 401 breast cancer patients who underwent breast surgery without axillary dissection were accrued from January 1986 to June 1994. At surgery, all patients were clinically node-negative and lacked evidence of distant metastases after clinical or radiologic examination. A precise 4-month clinical and radiologic follow-up was performed to detect axillary or distant metastases. Patients with clinical evidence of axillary nodal relapse were considered for surgery as salvage treatment. Biologic characteristics of primary carcinomas were investigated by immunohistochemistry, and four pathologic and biologic parameters (size, grading, laminin receptor, and c-erbB-2 receptor) were analyzed to determine a prognostic score.

Results The 5-year follow-up of these patients revealed a low rate of nodal relapses (6.7%), particularly for T1a and T1b patients (2% and 1.7%, respectively), whereas T1c and T2 patients showed a 10% and 18% relapse rate, respectively. Surgery was a safe and feasible salvage treatment without technical problems in all 19 cases of progressive disease at the axillary level. The low rate of distant metastases in T1a and T1b groups (<6%) increased to 15% in T1c and 34% in T2 patients. Analyzing the primary tumor with respect to the panel of pathologic and biologic parameters was predictive of metastatic spread and therefore can replace nodal status information for planning adjuvant treatment.

Conclusions Middle-term follow-up shows that the rate of axillary relapse in this patient population is lower than expected, suggesting that only a minimal number of microembolic nodal metastases become clinically evident. Avoidance of axillary dissection has a negligible effect on the outcome of T1 patients, particularly in T1a and T1b tumors with no palpable nodes, because the rate of axillary node relapse is very low for both. In T1 breast carcinoma, postsurgical therapy should be considered on the basis of biologic characteristics rather than nodal involvement. The authors’ prognostic score based on the primary tumor identified patients who required postsurgical treatment, providing a practical alternative to axillary status for deciding on adjuvant treatment. Conversely, in the T2 group, the high rate of salvage surgery for axillary relapses, which is expected in tumors larger than 2.5 cm or 3.0 cm, represents a limit for avoiding axillary dissection. Preoperative evaluation of axillary nodes for modification of surgical dissection in this subgroup would be more useful more than in T1 breast cancer because of the high risk. Complete dissection is feasible without technical problems if precise follow-up detects progressive axillary disease.

From *General Surgery B—Breast Unit, the †Molecular Targeting Unit, the ‡Anatomical Pathology Unit, and the §Anesthesiology Unit, ∥National Cancer Institute, Milan, Italy

Correspondence: Marco Greco, MD, General Surgery B—Breast Unit, National Cancer Institute, Via Venezian 1, 20133 Milan, Italy.

Partially supported by a grant from the Associazione Italiana per la Ricerca sul Cancro.


Accepted for publication November 22, 1999.

© 2000 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.