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Journal of Clinical Oncology recognizes that readers do not always have time to review an article in depth, and yet they still wish to understand how the results will influence their clinical practice or research. To address this need, we offer podcasts that will enhance the readership experience by presenting the key results of high-profile publications in a convenient audio format. Our podcasts are designed to place selected articles into a clinically useful perspective that is easy to listen to in the office or while on the road.

Life is busy, and it’s hard to get it all done during business hours! Journal of Clinical Oncology recognizes that you do not always have time to review an article in depth, and yet you wish to understand how the results will influence your clinical practice or research. JCO After Hours is a podcast intended to enhance the readership experience by presenting key results of high-profile publications in a convenient audio format, placing selected articles into a clinically useful perspective that you can listen to in the office or on the road.

Feb 26, 2024

In this JCO Article Insights episode, Giselle de Souza Carvalho provides a summary on  "Pathologic Exploration of the Axillary Soft Tissue Microenvironment and Its Impact on Axillary Management and Breast Cancer Outcomes" by Naoum, et al and "Optimization of Breast Cancer Regional Nodal Management" by Braunstein et al published in the January 10, 2024 issue in Journal of Clinical Oncology. The original report discusses how the examination of axillary soft tissue beyond lymph nodes is often omitted and it predicts breast cancer outcomes and need for nodal radiation.

TRANSCRIPT

The guest on this podcast episode has no disclosures to declare. 

Giselle Carvalho: Welcome to the JCO Article Insights episode for the February issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology. This is Giselle Carvalho, your host, one of the ASCO editorial fellows at JCO this year. Today, I'll be providing a summary of an article focused on “The Association of Axillary Soft Tissue Involvement on Outcomes for Breast Cancer Patients.” It was published in November 2023 and was partially presented at the 64th Annual ASCO in October 2022.

Although lymph node involvement in breast cancer patients is correlated with a worse prognosis, the impact of extracapsular involvement is still a matter of debate, and the implications of axillary soft tissue involvement are still not fully understood. There is some evidence indicating a decrease in disease-free survival for patients with less than four lymph nodes and with extracapsular extension, while other studies show that extracapsular involvement has no prognostic role in these patients and that the number of positive lymph nodes might matter more. Patients with node-positive disease may present with only lymph node involvement or lymph node involvement plus extracapsular extension and/or axillary soft tissue involvement. The axillary soft tissue involvement can result from either direct lymph node extension through the capsule or direct microscopic spread from the primary tumor. It is pathologically defined in this article as axillary lymphatic channel invasion, axillary soft tissue deposits, axillary blood vessel invasion, or any combination of these.

This was a retrospective study of patients with invasive breast cancer who received treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, from 2000 to 2020. Lymph nodes and surrounding adipose tissue were submitted in their entirety for histopathologic evaluation using hematoxylin and eosin stain, and immunohistochemical stains could be added at the pathologist's discretion. Eligibility criteria included primary breast cancer and positive lymph nodes without prior or contralateral breast cancer. 2,162 patients were included. They were divided into four groups according to their axillary pathology: the first group was composed of patients with positive lymph nodes with no additional axillary involvement; the second group of patients with positive lymph nodes and extracapsular involvement; the third group of patients with positive lymph nodes and axillary soft tissue involvement but with no extracapsular extension; and the fourth group of patients with positive lymph node and both extracapsular extension and axillary soft tissue involvement.

Primary endpoints were 10-year rates of local-regional failure, which was defined as recurrence in the breast or chest wall or ipsilateral axilla, axillary failure, and distant metastasis. Among 2,162 patients, 58% had lymph node involvement only, 25% had lymph nodes with extracapsular extension, 3.5% had lymph node involvement with axillary soft tissue involvement, and 14% had lymph node involvement with both extracapsular and axillary soft tissue involvement. 51% of cases of axillary soft tissue involvement were in the form of axillary lymphatic channel invasion. The median follow-up was 9.4 years, and 74% of the cohort had hormone receptor-positive breast cancer, 10% had triple-negative disease, and 16% had HER2-positive disease.

The groups with axillary soft tissue involvement, extracapsular extension, or both had more advanced tumor pathologic features when compared to the lymph node-only group, including a higher median size of breast tumors, a higher number of malignant lymph nodes, and an increased likelihood of breast lymphovascular invasion. Additionally, more patients in these three groups received mastectomy, axillary lymph node dissection, regional lymph node radiation, and systemic therapy.

The lymph node-only group had the lowest 10-year incidence of distant failure, 13%, while the group with extracapsular extension and the group with axillary soft tissue involvement both had a 23% rate of distant failure at 10 years. The risk of distant failure reached an impressively high rate of 42% for the group with both extracapsular extension and axillary soft tissue involvement.

Considering 10-year local-regional failure, the first group had a 6.2% rate, the second group a 5.7% rate, the third group a 10% rate, and the group with lymph node positivity with extracapsular extension and axillary soft tissue involvement had a 14% rate. The 10-year axillary failure rates were only 1.6% and 0.8% for the groups with no axillary soft tissue involvement but rose to 4.6% and 4.5% for the groups which did have axillary soft tissue involvement. In multivariable analysis, including tumor size, grade, number of positive nodes, and receptor status, axillary soft tissue involvement remained significantly associated with distant failure with a hazard ratio of 1.6, local-regional failure with a hazard ratio of 2.3, and axillary failure with a hazard ratio of 3.3. Of note, the number of axillary failures was overall low, only 4.6% in the group with both lymph node and axillary soft tissue involvement.

Delivery of regional lymph node irradiation, defined as treatment of axillary, supraclavicular, and internal mammary nodes, was associated with improved local-regional outcomes in patients with extracapsular extension or axillary soft tissue involvement with a hazard ratio of 0.5 and a p-value of 0.03 but was not associated with any improvement in distant failure.

The authors described the main limitations of this study as the retrospective nature and the absence of genomic marker results. In summary, although current guidelines do not emphasize axillary soft tissue examination, this study shows the importance of reporting axillary soft tissue involvement beyond the number of positive lymph nodes and the presence of extracapsular extension, as there is an increase in local-regional, and axillary failure rates for patients with axillary soft tissue involvement even without extracapsular extension. Therefore, both extracapsular extension and axillary soft tissue involvement should be consistently reported in large randomized trials as we continue to work to tailor local therapy to individual patient risk.

This is Giselle Carvalho. Thank you for your attention and stay tuned for the next episode of JCO Article Insights.

The purpose of this podcast is to educate and inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. 

Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. Guest statements on the podcast do not express the opinions of ASCO. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement.