Is there a role for axillary dissection for patients with operable breast cancer in this era of conservatism?

Boon Chua, Owen Ung, Richard Taylor, John Boyages*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


Background: The trend in breast cancer surgery is toward more conservative operative procedures. The new staging technique of sentinel node biopsy facilitates the identification of pathological node-negative patients in whom axillary dissection may be avoided. However, patients with a positive sentinel node biopsy would require a thorough examination of their nodal status. An axillary dissection provides good local control, and accurate staging and prognostic information to inform decisions about adjuvant therapy. In addition, the survival benefit of axillary treatment is still debated. The objectives of the present study were to examine the pattern of lymph node metastases in the axilla, and evaluate the merits of a level III axillary dissection. Methods: Between June 1997 and May 2000, 308 patients underwent a total of 320 level III dissections as part of their treatment for operable invasive breast cancer. The three axillary levels were marked intraoperatively, and the contents in each level were submitted and examined separately. The patterns of axillary lymph node (ALN) metastases were examined, and factors associated with ≥4 positive nodes, and level III ALN metastases were evaluated by univariate and multivariate analyses. Results: An average of 25 lymph nodes were examined per case (range: 8-54), and using strict anatomical criteria, the mean numbers of ALN found in levels I, II and III were 18 (range: 2-43), 4 (range: 0-19), and 3 (range: 0-11), respectively. Axillary lymph node involvement was found in 45% of the cases (143/320). Of the 143 cases, 78% (n = 111) had involvement of level I nodes only, and 21% (n = 30) had positive ALN in levels II and, or, III, in addition to level I. Involvement of lymph nodes in level II or III without a level I metastasis was found in two cases only (0.6%). By including level II, in addition to level I, in the dissection, four cases (1%) were converted from one to three positive nodes to ≥4 positive nodes (P = 0.64). By the inclusion of level III to a level I and II dissection, three cases (1%) were converted from one to three positive nodes to ≥4 positive nodes (P = 0.74). Involvement of lymph nodes in level III was found in 22 cases (7%), and 51 cases (16%) had ≥4 positive nodes. Palpability of ALN, pathological tumour size, and lymphovascular invasion (LVI), were significantly associated with level III involvement and ≥4 positive nodes by univariate and multivariate analyses. The frequencies of level III involvement and ≥4 positive nodes in patients with palpable ALN were 22% and 42%, respectively. The corresponding frequencies in patients with a clinically negative axilla, and a primary tumour which was >20 mm and LVI positive, were over 14% and 31%, respectively. Conclusion: Level III axillary dissection is appropriate for patients with palpable ALN, and in those with a tumour which is >20 mm and LVI positive, principally to reduce the risk of axillary recurrence. Staging accuracy is achieved with a level II dissection, or even a level I dissection alone based on strict anatomical criteria. Sentinel node biopsy is a promising technique in identifying pathological node-positive patients in whom an axillary clearance provides optimal local control and staging information.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)786-792
Number of pages7
JournalANZ Journal of Surgery
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Axillary clearance
  • Axillary dissection
  • Axillary lymph node
  • Breast cancer
  • Breast cancer staging
  • Local control
  • Lymph node metastases


Dive into the research topics of 'Is there a role for axillary dissection for patients with operable breast cancer in this era of conservatism?'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this