Lymph Node Study Challenges Beliefs of What is Best for Breast Cancer Care

A new study finds that many women with early breast cancer do not need a painful procedure that has long been routine: removal of cancerous lymph nodes from the armpit.

According to this report in the New York Times, this discovery turns standard medical practice on its head:

Surgeons have been removing lymph nodes from under the arms of breast cancer patients for 100 years, believing it would prolong women’s lives by keeping the cancer from spreading or coming back.

Now, researchers report that for women who meet certain criteria — about 20 percent of patients, or 40,000 women a year in the United States — taking out cancerous nodes has no advantage.

It does not change the treatment plan, improve survival or make the cancer less likely to recur.

And it can cause complications like infection and lymphedema, a chronic swelling in the arm that ranges from mild to disabling.

These new findings should change medical practice for many patients, as offered in this report from Grand Rapids, Michigan:

When Paula Sedrowski heard a study released Wednesday found some breast cancer patients can skip aggressive lymph node surgery without raising their risk of recurrence, she considered the news reason to cheer.

“I was thrilled,” said Sedrowski, a 61-year-old Belmont resident who underwent a lumpectomy for breast cancer in January 2004.

Because she took part in the clinical trial for the study, she did not have follow-up surgery to remove lymph nodes, even though cancer was found in the sentinel lymph node.

Sedrowski said several friends who had their lymph nodes removed have endured years of swelling and pain in their arms.

“I was glad I didn’t have complications,” said Sedrowski.

After surgery, she underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

She has been cancer-free for seven years.

With these study results and stories of patients such as Paula Sedrowski, breast cancer centers have already begun to act on this new information.

You may read more about the practical effects of this study at this link.

Of interest to medical professionals and breast cancer surgeons, the full lymph node and breast cancer surgery study may be accessed at this link.

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