Indications for routine SLN biopsy in patients with a diagnosis of pure DCIS are still controversial. The first study proposing SLN biopsy for DCIS patients came from the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in the year 2000 [7
]: in a study of 87 DCIS patients, 5 (5.7%) presented SLN metastases, and the authors concluded that SLN biopsy should be routinely used in DCIS patients in order to identify and correctly stage patients with undetected invasive disease. In a later report on 195 DCIS patients from the same Institution, 26 (13%) patients were SLN positive and this finding strengthened the recommendation that SLN biopsy should become a routine part of surgical treatment for all DCIS patients [8
The Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center group reviewed patients with "high risk" DCIS and found that 9/76 (12%) patients had SLNs positive for metastases. The authors suggested that SLN biopsy should be performed in all DCIS patients with one or more of the following characteristics: palpable or mammographic mass, suspicion of microinvasion, multicentric disease, high nuclear grade or necrosis [9
On the other hand, in subsequent studies negligible rates of nodal involvement were found in patients with pure DCIS: Kelly et al. [10
] found nodal metastases in only 3/134 (2.2%) patients, Intra et al. reported SLN metastases in 7/223 (3.1%) patients [11
], Farkas et al. found no cases of SLN metastasis among 44 patients [12
]. All these investigators concluded that SLN biopsy should not be routinely performed in patients with DCIS, with the exception of those undergoing mastectomy, because this operation precludes the possibility of performing a subsequent SLN biopsy if invasive foci are found at histology of the mastectomy specimen. Our results are consistent with the latter series of reports, since we found only one case of SLN micrometastasis among 102 patients with a diagnosis of pure DCIS (0.98%).
The variability in the reported rates of nodal metastases probably reflects differences in the accuracy of pathological evaluation of the primary breast tumour: extensive sampling and a thorough histological examination of the DCIS are of crucial importance in ruling out microinvasive foci. Microinvasive DCIS is a different pathological entity, with a well-defined metastatic potential, and should be excluded from studies evaluating the role of axillary staging in non-invasive cancer.
Our results support the view that the presence of axillary nodal metastases in patients with a final histopathological diagnosis of pure DCIS is a very unusual phenomenon, if the primary breast tumour has been completely excised and thoroughly examined by the pathologist. We, therefore, believe that routine SLN biopsy in all DCIS patients represents an over-treatment and should be avoided.
Enthusiasm for SLN biopsy in DCIS patients is partly due to the low morbidity of the procedure. However, complications such as lymphedema, seroma, infection and sensory neuropathy have been reported after SLN biopsy [13
]. Moreover, performing SLN biopsy in patients with a small DCIS treated with a conservative operation precludes the possibility of using this procedure in patients with a subsequent homolateral invasive tumour, which is not infrequent in this setting [1
Finally, the policy of performing primary tumour excision with simultaneous SLN biopsy in all patients with a preoperative diagnosis of DCIS may incur a risk of performing axillary biopsy in patients with benign breast lesions, since intraoperative frozen section histology is usually unreliable in patients with small areas of microcalcifications.
We therefore believe that this procedure should be used cautiously, being reserved for cases in which a real advantage can be expected.
Another factor that has prompted interest in SLN biopsy for DCIS patients is the widespread use of image-guided core needle biopsy for the diagnosis of mammographically-detected abnormalities, a diagnostic technique that often fails to identify invasive foci: 14 to 29% of patients with a preoperative core needle biopsy of DCIS are found to have invasive cancer at surgical excision [16
], and require a second operation for axillary staging. With vacuum-assisted large core biopsy the under-diagnosis rate is lower, but it is still not negligible. Supporters of routine SLN biopsy claim that this procedure is not reliable after primary tumour excision. They therefore believe that all patients with a preoperative diagnosis of DCIS who undergo definitive surgery and are upstaged because the pathologist finds foci of invasion on the specimen, must undergo an ALND if a SLN biopsy was not performed at the time of the first operation [18
]. We disagree with this view, because it has been clearly demonstrated that SLN biopsy can be safely performed as a second procedure after primary tumour excision [19
]. The only exceptions to this are patients who undergo mastectomy and those who require a wide quadrantectomy of the upper outer quadrant, which can disrupt lymphatic pathways toward the axilla. We therefore believe that only patients with a preoperative diagnosis of DCIS who need mastectomy or wide excision close to the axilla should undergo a concomitant SLN biopsy. In all other cases, only the primary tumour excision should be performed and SLN biopsy should be reserved, as a second procedure, for patients found to have infiltration at the histologic examination of the primary tumour.
It has been claimed that some features of DCIS (large dimensions, high grade, comedo-type, mass forming lesions) are associated with a higher risk of invasive disease and nodal metastases. Therefore, some authors suggest that SLN biopsy should be reserved for all patients with these "high- risk" DCIS [9
]. However, several investigators fail to correlate any histopathologic parameter with lymph node metastases [8
The majority of patients in our series presented with low risk DCIS: most of the tumours were small (<1 cm) and only 20/102 patients had a palpable breast mass. Therefore, we cannot rule out that a higher incidence of microinvasion and nodal metastases might be found in a patient population with more aggressive forms of DCIS. However, in our series, the one DCIS patient with SLN metastasis had a small micropapillary, G2, non-palpable tumour.
In our opinion, clinical judgement should be used in patients with large solid tumours or diffuse comedo-type DCIS, bearing in mind that most of these patients require a mastectomy and are therefore candidates for SLN biopsy.