INTRODUCTION: Nowadays, axillary sentinel node (SN) biopsy is a standard procedure in the staging of breast cancer. Although the internal mammary (IM) lymph node status is a major independent prognostic factor in breast cancer patients, sampling of IM sentinel nodes (IMSNs) is not performed routinely. The aim of this study was to determine the likelihood of finding IM lymph node metastases in case of IM hotspots on lymphoscintigraphy and evaluate the relevance of IMSN biopsy as a method to improve staging. PATIENTS AND METHODS: Between April 1997 and May 2006, a total of 1008 consecutive patients with clinically node-negative operable primary breast cancer were enrolled in a prospective study on SN biopsy. Both axillary and IMSNs were sampled, based on lymphoscintigraphy, intraoperative gamma probe detection and blue dye mapping, using 10mCi (370MBq) (99m)Tc-nanocolloid injected peritumorally, and 0.5-1.0ml Patent Blue V injected intradermally. RESULTS: Lymphoscintigraphy showed axillary sentinel nodes in 98% (989/1008) and IMSNs in 20% of the patients (196/1008). Sampling the IM basin, as based on the results of lymphoscintigraphy, was successful in 71% of the patients (139/196) and revealed metastases in 22% (31/139). In 29% of the patients with positive IMSNs (9/31) no axillary metastases were found. CONCLUSION: Evaluation of IMSNs improves nodal staging in breast cancer. Patients with IM hotspots on lymphoscintigraphy have a substantial risk (22%) of metastatic involvement of the IM chain. In addition, true IM node-negative patients can be spared the morbidity associated with adjuvant radiotherapy.