IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The good news: The rate of breast-conserving surgery to treat breast cancer has increased steadily since the mid 1980s. The potential bad news: Many women with early stages of the disease do not receive axillary node dissections as part of this treatment, which could mean a lower chance of survival after 10 years, according to a University of Iowa-led analysis.
"It's hard to say in a study like this exactly why there is a survival rate difference because you can't go back and actually find out all the relevant facts," said Carol Scott-Conner, M.D., Ph.D., UI professor and head of surgery. "But, the data did show that the women who did not have the dissections had worse survival rates than those who did."
Breast-conserving surgery involves removing just the cancerous tumor without taking the entire breast. Axillary nodes are lymph nodes found under the arm. Axillary node dissections involve taking out roughly 15 of the innumerable lymph nodes through a small incision under the arm.
Originally physicians thought that cancer spread from the local site to the regional lymph nodes and then to the rest of the body. By removing the lymph nodes, a surgeon might prevent the cancer from spreading. However, about 15 years ago, physicians started to believe that cancer spread systemically from the very beginning. The doctors thought that removing the lymph nodes just provide information about how bad the tumor was and didn't actually prevent the cancer from spreading. As a result, many physicians likely decided to forgo dissection.
"People started to think of it as more of a diagnostic procedure instead of something that might actually help to improve survival," Scott-Conner said.