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To analyze data obtained in a representative number of patients with primary rectal cancer with respect to lymph node diagnostics and related tumor stages.
In pT2-, pT3-, and pT4 rectal cancer lesions, the impact of investigated lymph nodes on the frequency of pN+ status, the cumulative risk of metachronous distant metastases, and overall survival was studied by means of a prospective multicenter observational study over a defined period of time.
From 2000 to 2011, the proportion of surgical specimens with ≥ 12 investigated lymph nodes increased significantly, from 73.6% to 93.2% (p < 0.001; the number of investigated lymph nodes from 16.2 to 20.8; p < 0.001). Despite this, the percentage of pN+ rectal cancer lesions varied only non-significantly (39.9% to 45.9%; p = 0.130; median, 44.1%). For pT2-, pT3-, and pT4 rectal cancer lesions, there was an increasing proportion of pN+ findings correlating significantly with the number of investigated lymph nodes up to n = 12 investigated lymph nodes. Only in pT3 rectal cancer was there a significant increase in pN+ findings in case of > 12 lymph nodes (p = 0.001), but not in pT2 (p = 0.655) and pT4 cancer lesions (p = 0.256). For pT3pN0cM0 rectal cancer, the risk of metachronous distant metastases and overall survival did not depend on the number of investigated lymph nodes.
In rectal cancer, at least n = 12 lymph nodes are to be minimally investigated. The investigation of fewer lymph nodes is associated with a higher risk of false-negative pN0 findings. In particular, in pT3 rectal cancer, the investigation of more than 12 lymph nodes lowers the risk of false-negative pN0 findings. An upstaging effect by the investigation of a possibly maximal number of lymph nodes could not be detected.