BACKGROUND: Tracing lymphatic drainage of the ipsilateral arm of node positive breast cancer patients, termed "axillary reverse mapping" (ARM), has recently been described in several reports. We analyzed our experience with this new technique in patients scheduled for axillary lymph node dissection (ALND) and evaluated its usefulness for reducing the incidence of lymphedema.
METHODS: Blue dye was injected subcutaneously along the intermuscular groove of the upper inner arm; radioisotope was injected subcutaneously in the interdigital webspace of the hand. All blue and radioactive lymph vessels and lymph nodes were recorded. Only unsuspicious "ARM lymph nodes" located in the lateral part of the axillary basin were preserved. All other level I and II axillary lymph nodes were removed. Resected ARM nodes were immediately separated from all other lymph nodes.
RESULTS: ARM was performed in 143 patients subsequently undergoing ALND. ARM lymph nodes were successfully identified in 112 cases (78%). In 55 patients at least one ARM lymph node had to be removed. In 14 of these, tumor involvement was confirmed. In 71 patients one or more ARM nodes were preserved. During a median follow-up time of 19 months no axillary recurrence was noted. 35 of 114 evaluated patients developed lymphedema. Preservation of ARM lymph nodes did not significantly decrease the incidence of lymphedema.
CONCLUSION: ARM is feasible for patients with node positive breast cancer. However, we found no evidence that it reduces the incidence of lymphedema.