Less invasive procedure could save lymph nodes

March 10, 2011 8:17:58 AM PST
A new medical study says many women with early breast cancer can avoid surgery to remove lymph nodes under their arm -- even if they contain cancer cells.

Researchers found that one in five women with early breast cancer can beat the cancer without removing the cancerous lymph nodes.

"I ended up with four different cancers in this breast," Carrie Jetton said.

Jetton had two surgeries and is taking chemotherapy. But she doesn't suffer from lyphodema.

"The swelling; you can't fly; it hurts," she said.

She avoided the painful complication because her surgeon did not take unnecessary lymph nodes.

"All she removed was two more and that was it," Jetton said.

"That just kinda hits you like a ton of bricks but then you kinda get your feet under you and you just think OK, what do I do now?" Natalie Hahn said.

Hahn had breast cancer surgery in January. It was caught early by a mammogram.

"You pray a lot and you trust," Hahn said.

She trusted Dr. Jamie Terry, who was trained at M.D. Anderson. Like most breast cancer surgeons in Houston, she removes lymph nodes sparingly.

That's not the case outside major medical centers.

"It requires a lot of additional training for the community surgeon that's already in practice to go back and learn these new surgical techniques," Dr. Terry said.

That's also the case even when a needle biopsy does show some cancer cells.

"Those patients simply get chemotherapy and whole breast radiation and do as well as patients who have the older procedure where seven to 10 more lymph nodes under the arm would have been removed," Dr. Terry said.

Researchers advise a woman who is told she needs a surgical biopsy to ask why, because as Jetton knows, it's hard enough to fight breast cancer without having to deal with lymphedema too.

"I can be normal. I don't have to worry about the swelling and the restrictions with my arms," Jetton said.

In another study, Florida researchers estimate more than 300,000 women a year may be having unnecessary biopsy surgery, which can leave disfiguring scars, when they could have had a less invasive needle biopsy. Needle biopsies have been the standard of care since 2006.