Practice Patterns of Radiation Field Design for Sentinel Lymph Node-Positive Early-Stage Breast Cancer

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Recent randomized trials have led to decreased use of completion axillary lymph node dissection (ALND) in early-stage breast cancer patients with a positive sentinel lymph node (SLN), causing controversy surrounding radiotherapy coverage of the axilla. We investigated the practice variation among radiation oncologists for regional nodal coverage for clinicopathologic scenarios and evaluated axillary field design decision-making processes.

Materials and Methods:

A customized, web-based questionnaire was e-mailed to 983 community (n = 617) and academic (n = 366) radiation oncologists with a breast cancer subspecialty practicing in the United States. The survey consisted of 18 multiple-choice questions evaluating general clinical preferences surrounding radiation therapy (RT) field design for patients with early-stage breast cancer and a positive SLN. Seven case scenarios were developed to investigate the field design in the setting of specific clinical and pathologic risk factors. Nodal coverage was classified as standard tangents (STs), high tangents (HTs), STs and a supraclavicular field (SCF), or STs and full axillary coverage (AX).


A total of 145 evaluable responses were collected, with a response rate of 15.0%. Of the respondents, 12 (8.3%) reported using completion ALND for patients with 1 to 3 positive SLNs without extracapsular extension (ECE) and 66 (45.5%) performed ALND with 1 to 3 positive SLNs with ECE. For micrometastatic SLNs, with no lymphovascular system invasion, 115 (87.1%) used STs or HTs. The use of neoadjuvant chemotherapy (NAC) influenced RT field design for patients with a positive SLN without ECE, with 64 (48.5%) using STs and SCF or STs and AX treatment without NAC and 94 (70.7%) using SCF and AX after NAC. With macrometastatic SLN involvement, most respondents preferred SCF (45.27%) and AX (45.66%). In contrast, for micrometastatic involvement, HTs (43.61%) were frequently chosen. Forty (27.8%) reported using online predictive nomograms to predict further axillary involvement, with no difference between the academic and community radiation oncologists (P = .11).


In SLN biopsy-positive early-stage breast cancer with omission of completion ALND, axillary RT is increasing used to cover the undissected axilla. Most respondents use SCF or AX for patients with low to intermediate pathologic features. Online prediction nomograms are used by a few practitioners to assist in clinical decision-making in this setting.


Controversy exists regarding optimal radiation lymph node and field design for sentinel lymph node positive breast cancer patients who do not undergo a completion nodal dissection. Using a web based questionnaire, we present various clinical scenarios of radiation coverage of the axilla. The survey found that there is increasing use of radiation to the axilla in those with positive sentinel lymph nodes despite low to intermediate pathological features.

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