Options for Breast Cancer Treatment Evolve

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Treating the disease has come a long way over the past few decades.

As breast cancer advances, it can enter the lymph nodes. So for years, doctors would simply take out all the lymph nodes under a woman's arms, just in case. But that carries a risk.

Dr. W. Lang Perdue, a member of the Cotton-O'Neil Clinic surgical staff, says, when you take all the lymph nodes under the arm, you're also taking the nodes that drain the arm. He says a complication in about a third of the women who undergo such a procedure is arm swelling. Sometimes, he says, the swelling so significant, the arm doesn't work very well. In addition, taking all those nodes can also put a woman at greater risk of infection.

About 15 years ago, doctors started trying a new approach. A radioactive isotope and/or a lipid-type dye is injected into the breast. It gets drawn into the lymphatics, allowing doctors to identify the sentinel lymph nodes - those nodes where cancer would settle first. Dr. Perdue says if that node is negative, you don't need to remove all the others. That means doctors are removing one to three nodes, instead of 20 to 30. It doesn't avoid surgery altogether, but Dr. Perdue says it does mean a smaller procedure, with less chance of damaging tissue.

Dr. Perdue says lymph node surgery is usually done on an outpatient basis and is often combined with other procedures, like a biopsy or lumpectomy.

You'll find more information on the procedure at the following link, www2.mdanderson.org/app/snb/procedure_1.htm

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