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Breast Cancer Lymph Node Biopsy May Need Closer Look
Date:4/9/2008

Stray 'micrometastases' could be missed, harming long-term survival, study suggests

WEDNESDAY, April 9 (HealthDay News) -- A new long-term analysis of breast cancer patient survival suggests it might be time to update the way pathologists test lymph node biopsies.

A team of New York City physicians found about one in four patients originally declared to be free of cancerous cells in their sentinel lymph nodes were actually not cancer-free, and that tiny cancer remnants called micrometastases reduced the women's survival over a 20-year period.

These findings address a long-standing question among breast cancer researchers: Are such micrometastases prognostically significant?

"This is the first study to show that there is a survival impact for the detection of micrometastases," said Dr. Stephen F. Sener, a professor of surgery at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

The results are published in the April 10 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

In the study, a team led by Dr. Hiram S. Cody III, a professor of clinical surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, analyzed a population of 368 patients who were originally diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1970s. At the time, these patients were judged to be free of cancerous cells on the basis of a single tissue slice (standard procedure at that time). As a result of that diagnosis, these patients received no follow-up treatment for their disease.

Each of these patients was then monitored over the following 20 years or so. Cody and his team retrospectively reanalyzed the decades-old tissue samples using modern techniques. They then assessed how many of the slices did, in fact, contain cancerous cells, and whether those stray cancerous cells had affected the women's survival.

"What we found was that among these patients, 23 percent were converted to node-positive [canc
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