A comparative study on the value of FDG-PET and sentinel node biopsy to identify occult axillary metastases

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Sentinel node biopsy (SNB) has become a standard treatment in staging axillary lymph nodes in early breast cancer. SNB, however, is an invasive procedure and is time-consuming when the sentinel node is analysed intra-operatively. Breast cancer is frequently characterised by increased 2-fluoro-2-deoxy-D-glucose uptake and many studies have shown encouraging results in detecting axillary lymph node metastases. The aim of this study was to compare SNB and -positron emission tomography (-PET) imaging, to assess their values in detecting occult axillary metastases.

Patients and Methods

In all, 236 patients with breast cancer and clinically negative axilla were enrolled in the study. 18-FDG-PET was carried out before surgery, using a positron emission tomography (PET)/computed tomography scanner. In all patients, SNB was carried out after identification through lymphoscintigraphy. Patients underwent axillary lymph nodes dissection (ALND) in cases of positive FDG-PET or positive SNB. The results of PET scan were compared with histopathology of SNB and ALND.


In all, 103 out of the 236 patients (44%) had metastases in axillary nodes. Sensitivity of FDG-PET scan for detection of axillary lymph node metastases in this series was low (37%); however, specificity and positive predictive values were acceptable (96% and 88%, respectively).


The high specificity of PET imaging indicates that patients who have a PET-positive axilla should have an ALND rather than an SNB for axillary staging. In contrast, FDG-PET showed poor sensitivity in the detection of axillary metastases, confirming the need for SNB in cases where PET is negative in the axilla.

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