Front-page newsPosted: February 9, 2011
An article on the front page of the Houston Chronicle today says that big changes are in store for the breast surgery required for cancer treatment. A new study from our own local attraction, M.D. Anderson, found that women with early stage breast cancer don’t need to have their lymph nodes removed, even if the nodes are cancerous.
This is big news. Breast surgeons are calling it “practice-changing” and proof of the old adage that “less is more.” Dr Kelly Hunt, surgery professor at Anderson, says, “The study shows that we don’t have to take out huge swaths of tissue, that we can avoid aggressive surgery without any effect on outcome.” Personally, I’m a fan of anything that avoids removing huge swaths of tissue. Ick. Ugh. Yuck. Been there, done that. More than once.
This new study pokes holes in the century-old belief that a surgeon’s job was to cut out every bit of the cancer, and found that removing the lymph nodes didn’t give women any benefit over radiation and drug therapy alone. The prevailing science has been that removing lymph nodes helps prevent the cancer from spreading and/or recurring.
Removing the lymph nodes from the armpit area is a hot mess waiting to happen. You’ve got the cosmetic issue of ending up with a concaved surface. You’ve got the potential for infection (ahem). You’ve got the risk of lymphedema, which is painful swelling in the arm that cannot be cured. Anyone who has ever seen a photo of a limb swollen to multiple times its normal size because of lymphedema knows to fear this condition. I’ve met several breast cancer survivors on the tennis court since I returned to the game post-mastectomy and post-infection, and more than one of them played with a compression sleeve (a form-fitting garment that goes from wrist to shoulder) to stave off lymphedema. Tammy, my dear lymphedema specialist, made me take one of those bloody things home to keep in my drawer, “just in case,” because the really stinky thing about lymphedema — aside from the fact that there’s no cure — is that it can come on at any time. Women have gotten it years after a mastectomy, with no prior symptoms.
If you want all the nitty-gritty details of the study, you can read the New York Times article, which goes into a little more detail than the Chronicle’s story. The Chronicle does get credit for providing more info about Anderson’s role in the study. We like to root for the local team. Seems 100 of the 891 patients in this study were from Anderson, and the researchers originally planned to expand the study to include 1,900 women, but shut down the study before that happened because the results were so overwhelmingly conclusive.
I like overwhelmingly conclusive results. You don’t find a lot of them in medicine. I’ve learned that the hard way in my “cancer journey.” I’m a black & white, just-the-facts-ma’am kind of girl, and I found myself smacking my head against a wall more than once in pursuit of a concrete, yes-or-no type answer. In medicine, precious few of those exist. I suspect that’s why it’s referred to as “practicing” medicine.
In fact, Dr Grimes, my infectious disease doctor, has spoken of practicing the art of medicine as much as the science of medicine. I really like the way that sounds, as if it’s so very civilized and full of aesthetic value. In reality, it’s a balancing act of drug therapy vs side effects; of benefit vs cost; of how far can we push the body yet still maintain the integral strength necessary to fight the disease.
In other words, there is no overwhelmingly conclusive answer. And sometimes the doctors don’t know themselves what the right answer is. That’s why it’s so nice when a study comes along that says, yes, for sure this is the right thing to do.
I’m super happy about this big news. I hope it lives up to its potential to make life easier for the 200,000 women a year diagnosed with this breast cancer. And I really hope that it’s just a teaser of what big breakthroughs in breast cancer research are yet to come.