We do wish that the story had provided a few more hard numbers, especially in regard to cost. And the story could have made it clear higher up that this study does not mean that lymph nodes should never be removed.
But, overall, this story earns a top five-star score.
The story says it all: “The discovery turns standard medical practice on its head. Surgeons have been removing lymph nodes from under the arms of breast cancer patients for 100 years, believing it would prolong women’s lives by keeping the cancer from spreading or coming back.” Patients who receive a cancer diagnosis are often thinking about one thing; metastisis. It has been drilled into our brains that cancer spreads and often can spread quickly. This study shows that, because doctors already are providing patients with chemotherapy and radiation, those treatments may wipe out the cancer in the lymph nodes and negate the need for surgery. This will be tough for some patients, and doctors, to accept, though. As the story notes, “Doctors and patients alike find it easy to accept more cancer treatment on the basis of a study, Dr. Morrow said, but get scared when the data favor less treatment.”
Clearly, the costs involved in cancer treatment already are high. By removing a layer of treatment from an estimated 40,000 patients, those costs would have to drop, but it is unclear from the story by how much. Also, it would have been worth mentioning whether this is likely to affect how insurance companies handle lymph node removals.
The story did a good job providing some numbers on benefits, but we wish it had provided more and explained some things a bit more. It says, for example, “In 27 percent of the women who had additional nodes removed, those nodes were cancerous.” How many women had additional nodes removed and, of those, how many had cancerous nodes? A figure like 27% means 1 out of every 4 women had nodes that were, indeed, cancerous, which seems to conflict with other statements in the story about chemotherapy and radiation wiping out the cancer.
The story discusses several harms from lymph node removal, and shows that the difference in survival for women who had nodes removed and those who did not was not significant. “Indeed, women in the study who had the nodes taken out were far more likely (70 percent versus 25 percent) to have complications like infections, abnormal sensations and fluid collecting in the armpit. They were also more likely to have lymphedema.”
This is where the story really outperformed some of the competition covering the same news. It placed the study into the broader context of a movement in cancer care away from surgeries that don’t provide a clear benefit, and it also explained the study design and the limitations of the study in several ways. “The study, at 115 medical centers, included 891 patients. Their median age was in the mid-50s, and they were followed for a median of 6.3 years. … One potential weakness in the study is that there was not complete follow-up information on 166 women, about equal numbers from each group. The researchers said that did not affect the results. A statistician who was not part of the study said the missing information should have been discussed further, but probably did not have an important impact. It is not known whether the findings also apply to women who do not have radiation and chemotherapy, or to those who have only part of the breast irradiated. Nor is it known whether the findings could be applied to other types of cancer.” It was too bad that it did not mention limitations in terms of lack of enrollment. The targeted enrollment was 1900. There also was an imbalance in the randomization that should have been mentioned.
The story is careful to explain to readers that the research findings only apply to a subset of women with breast cancer. “Now, researchers report that for women who meet certain criteria — about 20 percent of patients, or 40,000 women a year in the United States — taking out cancerous nodes has no advantage. It does not change the treatment plan, improve survival or make the cancer less likely to recur. And it can cause complications like infection and lymphedema, a chronic swelling in the arm that ranges from mild to disabling.” The Q&A that ran with the story provided more detail about the different types of cancers and cancer patients, noting, for example, “First of all, 20 percent (the estimate of the study’s lead author, Dr. Armando E. Giuliano) refers to 20 percent of all the newly diagnosed cases of invasive breast cancer each year. This does not include noninvasive breast cancer, or DCIS, ductal carcinoma in situ. The total is about 207,000, so 20 percent is roughly 40,000 women. That is about how many women would match those in the study, in terms of tumor status, affected lymph nodes and course of treatment.” The story also says, “The results mean that women like those in the study will still have to have at least one lymph node removed, to look for cancer and decide whether they will need more treatment. But taking out just one or a few nodes should be enough.”
Good quotes including from Dr. Monica Morrow, chief of the breast service at Sloan-Kettering and an author of the study, but also a few fromindependent experts toward the end. Dr. Grant W. Carlson, a professor of surgery at the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University, and the author of an editorial accompanying the study, provides some soul-searching context by saying that, in taking out so many lymph nodes, “I have a feeling we’ve been doing a lot of harm.” Dr. Elisa R. Port, the chief of breast surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan, said, “It’s definitely practice-changing.” And Dr. Alison Estabrook, the chief of the comprehensive breast center at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt hospital in New York said, “In the past, surgeons thought our role was to get out all the cancer. … Now he’s saying we don’t really have to do that.”
The story does a great job explaining the history of this form of treatment and how it has evolved over time. “But doctors have continued to think that even microscopic disease in the lymph nodes should be cut out to improve the odds of survival. And until recently, they counted cancerous lymph nodes to gauge the severity of the disease and choose chemotherapy. But now the number is not so often used to determine drug treatment, doctors say. What matters more is whether the disease has reached any nodes at all. If any are positive, the disease could become deadly. Chemotherapy is recommended, and the drugs are the same, no matter how many nodes are involved.” The story goes on to do something that stories like this rarely do, it compares compares the harms from different forms of treatment, saying “After armpit surgery, 20 percent to 30 percent of women develop lymphedema, Dr. Port said, and radiation may increase the rate to 40 percent to 50 percent. Physical therapy can help, but there is no cure.”
The story makes it clear that removing all under-arm lymph nodes is the standard of care for women with breast cancer and that feelings about that standard are entrenched.
The story establishes that a change in treatment protocol away from removing all the lymph nodes under the arms of women with breast cancer would be novel. There is some nuance, here, though that could be missed by a casual reader. Women who have one to two positive lymph nodes would avoid having additional lymph node surgery. The overall tone of the story may make it appear to some readers that women get to avoid lymph node surgery altogether, but they don’t.
The story goes well beyond any news release.