Secondary Logo

Journal Logo

Institutional members access full text with Ovid®

Comparative Morbidity of Axillary Lymph Node Dissection and the Sentinel Lymph Node Technique: Implications for Patients With Breast Cancer

Silberman, Allan W. MD, PhD*; McVay, Carie MD*; Cohen, Jason S. MD*; Altura, Jack F.*; Brackert, Sandra RN*; Sarna, Gregory P. MD; Palmer, Daphne MD; Ko, Albert MD*; Memsic, Leslie MD*

doi: 10.1097/01.sla.0000129358.80798.62

Objective: To assess our long-term complications from complete axillary lymph node dissection (AXLND) in patients with breast cancer.

Summary Background Data: Complete AXLND as part of the surgical therapy for breast cancer has come under increased scrutiny due the use of the sentinel lymph node (SLN) biopsy technique to assess the status of the axillary nodes. As the enthusiasm for the SLN technique has increased, our impression has been that the perceived complication rate from AXLND has increased dramatically while the negative aspects of the SLN technique have been underemphasized.

Methods: Female patients seen in routine follow-up over a 1-year period were eligible for our retrospective study of the long-term complications from AXLND if they were a minimum of 1 year out from all primary therapy; ie, surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy. All patients had previously undergone either a modified radical mastectomy (MRM) or a segmental mastectomy with axillary dissection and postoperative radiation (SegAx/XRT). All patients had a Level I–III dissection. Objective measurements, including upper and lower arm circumferences and body mass index (BMI), were obtained, and a subjective evaluation from the patients was conducted.

Results: Ninety-four patients were eligible for our study; 44 had undergone MRM, and 50 had undergone SegAx/XRT. The average number of nodes removed was 25.6 (standard deviation, 8). Thirty-three percent of the patients had positive nodal disease, 95% of the patients had an upper arm circumference within 2 cm of the unaffected side, and 93.3% had a lower arm circumference within 2 cm of the unaffected side. Subjectively, 90.4% of the patients had either no or minimal arm swelling, and 96.8% of the patients had “good” or “excellent” overall arm function. The most common long-term symptom was numbness involving the upper, inner aspect of the affected arm (25.5%).

Conclusions: Our data indicate that a complete AXLND can be performed with minimal long-term morbidity. The lower the morbidity of AXLND, the less acceptable are the unique complications of the SLN technique.

Our data evaluating the long-term complications of a complete axillary lymph node dissection indicate that this operation can be performed with minimal long-term morbidity. The recent literature appears to overestimate the complications of axillary node dissection and underestimate the complications of the sentinel lymph node technique in the understandable enthusiasm surrounding a new methodology. The implications of the sentinel lymph node technique are discussed.

From the Divisions of *Surgical Oncology, †Medical Oncology, and ‡Radiation Oncology, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, California.

Reprints: Allan W. Silberman, MD, PhD, Cedars-Sinai Comprehensive Cancer Center, 8700 Beverly Blvd. Los Angeles, California 90048. E-mail:

© 2004 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.