Lymph Node Study Shakes Pillar of Breast Cancer Care
By DENISE GRADY
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. The 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.
Removing the cancerous lymph nodes proved unnecessary because the women in the study had chemotherapy and radiation, which probably wiped out any disease in the nodes, the researchers said. Those treatments are now standard for women with breast cancer in the lymph nodes, based on the realization that once the disease reaches the nodes, it has the potential to spread to vital organs and cannot be eliminated by surgery alone.
Experts say that the new findings, combined with similar ones from earlier studies, should change medical practice for many patients. Some centers have already acted on the new information. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan changed its practice in September, because doctors knew the study results before they were published. But more widespread change may take time, experts say, because the belief in removing nodes is so deeply ingrained. “This is such a radical change in thought that it’s been hard for many people to get their heads around it,” said Dr. Monica Morrow, chief of the breast service at Sloan-Kettering and an author of the study, which is being published on Wednesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association. The National Cancer Institute paid for the study...