Pleural Effusion and an Axillary Mass in a Woman With Hypertension

Maurie Markman, MD


March 30, 2021

In a female patient with negative mammographic findings, breast MRI can be helpful. In one series, 28 of 40 women (70%) with evidence of cancer in the axilla and a normal mammogram were found to have a breast abnormality on MRI.[5] Of note, and of considerable relevance to subsequent disease management, five of the 12 women with negative findings in this series underwent surgery, and in four of the cases no cancer was found. Although the number of participants in this series is limited, the absence of an MRI abnormality in the patient in this case can reasonably be considered in her future treatment plans.

Specifically, it might be suggested in this case that treatment include surgical removal of the axillary mass (if possible) followed by radiation to this area and the breast (rather than performing a mastectomy). Alternatively, treatment might begin with chemotherapy (a neoadjuvant approach) followed by surgery to remove any residual axillary mass and local/regional radiation or local/regional radiation alone. Adjuvant chemotherapy and/or hormonal therapy would then be administered.

The presence of a possible small pleural effusion is a concern because it potentially indicates more widespread metastatic disease, as does the mild elevation of the serum alkaline phosphatase level (eg, suggesting metastatic disease in bone or the liver). In the absence of other evidence of tumor spread, PET would not be unreasonable. A negative scan for evidence of metastatic disease would support a "curative" approach to the management of local disease in the axilla and presumably the breast, whereas a finding of other metastatic sites would lead to the conclusion that treatment should probably be delivered with more palliative intent.

The family history of cancer (father, paternal aunt with breast cancer, paternal grandmother with possible ovarian cancer) is intriguing and would suggest a role for genetic counseling and possibly genetic testing (eg, for BRCA mutation).

The patient in this case underwent PET. The only abnormality observed was in the left axilla. The axillary mass was subsequently resected. This was followed by curative radiation to both the axilla and left breast, adjuvant chemotherapy, and 5 years of hormonal therapy. The patient has showed no evidence of recurrence 2 years after completion of the hormonal treatment.


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