The ability to provide the best treatment for breast cancer depends on establishing whether or not the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes under the arm. Conventional assessment requires tissue removal, preparation, and expert microscopic interpretation. In this study, elastic scattering spectroscopy (ESS) is used to interrogate excised nodes with pulsed broadband illumination and collection of the backscattered light. Multiple spectra are taken from 139 excised nodes (53 containing cancer) in 68 patients, and spectral analysis is performed using a combination of principal component analysis and linear discriminant analysis to correlate the spectra with conventional histology. The data are divided into training and test sets. In test sets containing spectra from only normal nodes and nodes with complete replacement by cancer, ESS detects the spectra from cancerous nodes with 84% sensitivity and 91% specificity (per-spectrum analysis). In test sets that included normal nodes and nodes with partial as well as complete replacement by cancer, ESS detects the nodes with cancer with an average sensitivity of 75% and specificity of 89% (per-node analysis). These results are comparable to those from conventional touch imprint cytology and frozen section histology, but do not require an expert pathologist for interpretation. With automation of the technique, results could be made available almost instantaneously. ESS is a promising technique for the rapid, accurate, and straightforward detection of metastases in excised sentinel lymph nodes. © 2004 Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers.