Objective: To evaluate the ability of positron emission tomography (PET) with 18F-fluoro-2-deoxy-D-glucose (18F-FDG) to determine noninvasively axillary lymph node status in patients with breast cancer. Background: The presence of axillary lymph node metastasis is the most important prognostic factor in women with breast cancer. It signifies the presence of occult metastatic disease and indicates the need for adjuvant therapy. The only reliable way in which this important prognostic information may be obtained is by performing axillary dissection, which may be associated with significant complications and delay in discharge from the hospital. PET with 18F-FDG can visualize primary cancers in the breast and metastatic tumor deposits. Methods: Fifty patients with untreated breast cancer had clinical examination of their axilla performed (graded as positive or negative), followed by PET of the axilla and midthorax. PET data were analyzed blindly and graded as positive or negative, depending on the presence or absence of axillary nodal metastases. Cytopathologic assessment of the axillary nodes was carried out within 1 week of PET, by fine-needle aspiration cytology in 5 patients and axillary dissection in 45; the excised specimens were examined by a single pathologist. Results: The overall sensitivity of PET in 50 patients was 90% and the specificity was 97%. Clinical examination of the same patients had an overall sensitivity of 57% and a specificity of 90%. In the 24 patients with locally advanced breast cancer (T3, T4, TxN2), PET had a sensitivity of 93% and a specificity of 100%. In T1 tumors (seven patients), the sensitivity and specificity were 100%. PET had a high predictive value (>90%) and accuracy (94%) in staging the axilla. Conclusions: PET is a sensitive and specific method of staging the axilla in patients with breast cancer. It may obviate the need for axillary surgery in women with small primary tumors, define the women likely to benefit from axillary dissection, or allow radiotherapy to be substituted for surgery, particularly in postmenopausal women.
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