It is a landmark study that is already changing the way breast cancer is treated. The research in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that many breast cancer patients can skip aggressive lymph node surgery without increasing their chances of a recurrence or death if their disease shows limited spread.
Until now, the surgery was performed if the cancer had spread outside the breast to any lymph nodes. It can be debilitating – for instance, my mother’s left arm was permanently swollen, her range of motion was limited, and even the slightest scratch would never heal.
In this study, rates of survival and of patients’ remaining cancer-free were just as good whether the women with limited spread – in one or two nearby nodes – had lots more underarm nodes removed or skipped that major surgery.
That suggests that thousands of women, up to 20% of patients could be spared aggressive node surgery and those troubling side effects. That is already happening in some hospitals. Again this is for women with relatively early disease, with spread to no more than two nodes. The researchers figure the results are so good because these women get lots of other treatment including lumpectomies and radiation, as well as chemotherapy and hormone treatment.