Background: The aim of this study was to investigate the frequency of axillary metastasis in women with tubular carcinoma (TC) of the breast. Methods: Women who underwent axillary dissection for TC in the Western Sydney area (1984-1995) were identified retrospectively through a search of computerized records. A centralized pathology review was performed and tumours were classified as pure tubular (22) or mixed tubular (nine), on the basis of the invasive component containing 90 per cent or more, or 75-90 per cent tubule formation respectively. A Medline search of the literature was undertaken to compile a collective series (20 studies with a total of 680 patients) to address the frequency of nodal involvement in TC. A quantitative meta-analysis was used to combine the results of these studies. Results: The overall frequency of nodal metastasis was five of 31 (16 per cent); one of 22 pure tubular and four of nine mixed tumours (P = 0.019). None of the tumours with a diameter of 10 mm or less (n = 16) had nodal metastasis compared with five of 15 larger tumours (P = 0.018). The meta-analysis of 680 women showed an overall frequency of nodal metastasis in TC of 13.8 (95 per cent confidence interval 9.3-18.3) per cent. The frequency of nodal involvement was 6.6 (1.7-11.4) per cent in pure TC (n = 244) and 25.0 (12.5-37.6) per cent in mixed TC (n = 149). Conclusion: A case may be made for observing the clinically negative axilla in women with a small TC (10 mm or less in diameter).