Advances in the surgical management of the axilla in patients treated with neoadjuvant chemotherapy, especially those with node positive disease at diagnosis, have led to changes in practice and more judicious use of axillary lymph node dissection that may minimize morbidity from surgery. However, there is still significant confusion about how to optimally manage the axilla, resulting in variation among practices.
From the viewpoint of drug development, assessment of response to neoadjuvant chemotherapy remains paramount and appropriate assessment of residual disease-the primary endpoint of many drug therapy trials in the neoadjuvant setting-is critical. Therefore decreasing the variability, especially in a multicenter clinical trial setting, and establishing a minimum standard to ensure consistency in clinical trial data, without mandating axillary lymph node dissection, for all patients is necessary.
The key elements, which include proper staging and identification of nodal involvement at diagnosis, and appropriately targeted management of the axilla at the time of surgical resection are presented. The following protocols have been adopted as standard procedure by the I-SPY2 trial for management of axilla in patients with node positive disease, and present a framework for prospective clinical trials and practice.