New Breast Cancer Procedure Gives Women New Hope, Say Henry Ford Surgeons

March 26, 1997

DETROIT -- Henry Ford Health System surgeons are offering women with breast cancer a new surgical procedure that not only leaves women with less pain than traditional methods but also helps doctors determine, more accurately, if the breast cancer has spread.

The new technique, done only at Henry Ford Hospital in southeast Michigan, allows surgeons to find the sentinel lymph node - the first node to receive cancerous cells from the breast tumor, said David Nathanson, M.D., director of the Breast Care Clinic at Henry Ford Hospital.

"When a woman has a tumor in her breast, one of the things we need to find out is if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes under her arms. That's one of the major points from which the breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body," Dr. Nathanson said. "The current standard is to remove all the armpit lymph nodes. This operations sometimes leaves women with swelling in their arm, higher rates of infection, occasional nerve function damage and often times, chronic pain."

In the new technique, doctors inject a blue dye that "lights up" the lymph nodes, which are embedded in fat in the arm pit and very difficult to detect. In addition, a radioative agent, concentrated in the sentinel lymph node, is detected by a special instrument.

The combination of the blue dye with a radioactive agent shows the location of the sentinel lymph node, which is removed and studied by a pathologist to determine if the cancer has spread. In more than 90 percent of the cases, doctors can find the sentinel lymph node. If this node does not contain cancer, it may be appropriate to leave other lymph nodes intact. Women then have fewer side effects when fewer lymph nodes are removed.

"This is a real breakthrough in breast cancer treatment," Dr. Nathanson said. "We are minimizing the amount of surgery the women need while offering them as much of a chance for cure as the older procedure."

Henry Ford Health System

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