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  • Review Article

Axillary Treatment for Operable Primary Breast Cancer

Background: Axillary surgery is an established part of the management of primary breast cancer. It provides staging information to guide adjuvant therapy and potentially local control of axillary disease. Several alternative approaches to axillary surgery are available, most of which aim to spare a proportion of women the morbidity of complete axillary dissection.

Objectives: To assess the benefits and harms of alternative approaches to axillary surgery (including omitting such surgery altogether) in terms of overall survival; local, regional and distant recurrences; and adverse events.

Search methods: We searched the Cochrane Breast Cancer Group Specialised Register, MEDLINE, Pre-MEDLINE, Embase, CENTRAL, the World Health Organization International Clinical Trials Registry Platform and ClinicalTrials.gov on 12 March 2015 without language restrictions. We also contacted study authors and checked reference lists.

Selection criteria: Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) including women with clinically defined operable primary breast cancer conducted to compare axillary lymph node dissection (ALND) with no axillary surgery, axillary sampling or sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB); RCTs comparing axillary sampling with SLNB or no axillary surgery; RCTs comparing SLNB with no axillary surgery; and RCTs comparing ALND with or without radiotherapy (RT) versus RT alone.

Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently assessed each potentially relevant trial for inclusion. We independently extracted outcome data, risk of bias information and study characteristics from all included trials. We pooled data according to trial interventions, and we used hazard ratios (HRs) for time-to-event outcomes and odds ratios (OR) for binary outcomes.

Main results: We included 26 RCTs in this review. Studies were at low or unclear risk of selection bias. Blinding was not done, but this was only considered a source of bias for outcomes with potential for subjectivity in measurements. We found no RCTs of axillary sampling versus SLNB, axillary sampling versus no axillary surgery or SLNB versus no axillary surgery. No axillary surgery versus ALND Ten trials involving 3849 participants compared no axillary surgery versus ALND. Moderate quality evidence showed no important differences between overall survival of women in the two groups (HR 1.06, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.96 to 1.17; 3849 participants; 10 studies) although no axillary surgery increased the risk of locoregional recurrence (HR ranging from 1.10 to 3.06; 20,863 person-years of follow-up; four studies). It was uncertain whether no surgery increased the risk of distant metastasis compared with ALND (HR 1.06, 95% CI 0.87 to 1.30; 946 participants; two studies). Low-quality evidence indicated no axillary surgery decreased the risk of lymphoedema compared with ALND (OR 0.31, 95% CI 0.23 to 0.43; 1714 participants; four studies). Axillary sampling versus ALND Six trials involving 1559 participants compared axillary sampling versus ALND. Low-quality evidence indicated similar effectiveness of axillary sampling compared with ALND in terms of overall survival (HR 0.94, 95% CI 0.73 to 1.21; 967 participants; three studies) but it was unclear whether axillary sampling led to increased risk of local recurrence compared with ALND (HR 1.41, 95% CI 0.94 to 2.12; 1404 participants; three studies). The relative effectiveness of axillary sampling and ALND for locoregional recurrence (HR 0.74, 95% CI 0.46 to 1.20; 406 participants; one study) and distant metastasis was uncertain (HR 1.05, 95% CI 0.74 to 1.49; 406 participants; one study). Lymphoedema was less likely after axillary sampling than after ALND (OR 0.32, 95% CI 0.13 to 0.81; 80 participants; one study). SLNB versus ALND Seven trials involving 9426 participants compared SLNB with ALND. Moderate-quality evidence showed similar overall survival following SLNB compared with ALND (HR 1.05, 95% CI 0.89 to 1.25; 6352 participants; three studies; moderate-quality evidence). Differences in local recurrence (HR 0.94, 95% CI 0.24 to 3.77; 516 participants; one study), locoregional recurrence (HR 0.96, 95% CI 0.74 to 1.24; 5611 participants; one study) and distant metastasis (HR 0.80, 95% CI 0.42 to 1.53; 516 participants; one study) were uncertain. However, studies showed little absolute difference in the aforementioned outcomes. Lymphoedema was less likely after SLNB than ALND (OR ranged from 0.04 to 0.60; three studies; 1965 participants; low-quality evidence). Three studies including 1755 participants reported quality of life: Investigators in two studies found quality of life better after SLNB than ALND, and in the other study observed no difference. RT versus ALND Four trials involving 2585 participants compared RT alone with ALND (with or without RT). High-quality evidence indicated that overall survival was reduced among women treated with radiotherapy alone compared with those treated with ALND (HR 1.10, 95% CI 1.00 to 1.21; 2469 participants; four studies), and local recurrence was less likely in women treated with radiotherapy than in those treated with ALND (HR 0.80, 95% CI 0.64 to 0.99; 22,256 person-years of follow-up; four studies). Risk of distant metastasis was similar for radiotherapy alone as for ALND (HR 1.07, 95% CI 0.93 to 1.25; 1313 participants; one study), and whether lymphoedema was less likely after RT alone than ALND remained uncertain (OR 0.47, 95% CI 0.16 to 1.44; 200 participants; one study). Less surgery versus ALND When combining results from all trials, treatment involving less surgery was associated with reduced overall survival compared with ALND (HR 1.08, 95% CI 1.01 to 1.17; 6478 participants; 18 studies). Whether local recurrence was reduced with less axillary surgery when compared with ALND was uncertain (HR 0.90, 95% CI 0.75 to 1.09; 24,176 participant-years of follow up; eight studies). Locoregional recurrence was more likely with less surgery than with ALND (HR 1.53, 95% CI 1.31 to 1.78; 26,880 participant-years of follow-up; seven studies). Whether risk of distant metastasis was increased after less axillary surgery compared with ALND was uncertain (HR 1.07, 95% CI 0.95 to 1.20; 2665 participants; five studies). Lymphoedema was less likely after less axillary surgery than with ALND (OR 0.37, 95% CI 0.29 to 0.46; 3964 participants; nine studies).No studies reported on disease control in the axilla.

Authors' conclusions: This review confirms the benefit of SLNB and axillary sampling as alternatives to ALND for axillary staging, supporting the view that ALND of the clinically and radiologically uninvolved axilla is no longer acceptable practice in people with breast cancer.