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The prognostic significance of nodal metastases from papillary thyroid carcinoma can be stratified based on the size and number of metastatic lymph nodes, as well as the presence of extranodal extension.

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Ultrasound and prophylactic dissections have facilitated identification of small-volume cervical lymph node (LN) metastases in patients with papillary thyroid carcinoma (PTC). Since most staging systems do not stratify risk based on size or number of LN metastases, even a single-microscopic LN metastasis can upstage a patient with low-risk papillary thyroid microcarcinoma (PMC) to an intermediate risk of recurrence in the American Thyroid Association (ATA) system and to an increased risk of death in the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) staging system (stage III if the metastatic node is in the central neck or stage IVA if the microscopic LN metastasis is identified in the lateral neck). Such microscopic upstaging may lead to potentially unnecessary or additional treatments and follow-up studies. The goal of this review is to determine if the literature supports the concept that specific characteristics (clinically apparent size, number, and extranodal extension) of LN metastases can be used to stratify the risk of recurrence in PTC.


In patients with pathological proven cervical LN metastases (pathological N1 disease; pN1), the median risk of loco-regional LN recurrence varies markedly by clinical staging, with recurrence rates for patients who are initially clinically N0 (clinical N0 disease; cN0) of 2% (range 0%-9%) versus rates of recurrence for patients who are initially clinically N-positive (clinical N1 disease; cN1) of 22% (range 10%-42%). Furthermore, the median risk of recurrence in pN1 patients varies markedly by the number of positive nodes, <5 nodes (4%, range 3%-8%) vs. >5 nodes (19%, range 7%-21%). Additionally, the presence of extranodal extension was associated with a median risk of recurrence of 24% (range 15%-32%) and possibly a worse disease-specific survival.


Our previous paradigm assigned the same magnitude of risk for all patients with N1 disease. However, small-volume subclinical microscopic N1 disease clearly conveys a much smaller risk of recurrence than large-volume, macroscopic clinically apparent loco-regional metastases. Armed with this information, clinicians will be better able to tailor initial treatment and follow-up recommendations. Implications of N1 stratification for PTC into small-volume microscopic disease versus clinically apparent macroscopic disease importantly relate to issues of prophylactic neck dissection utility, need for pathologic nodal size description, and suggest potential modifications to the AJCC TNM (tumor, nodal disease, and distant metastasis) and ATA risk recurrence staging systems.

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