Women have New Options for Breast Cancer Surgery

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Nationally, about 25 to 30 percent of women get immediate reconstruction. At the Mayo Clinic, about half do, and at Georgetown, it’s about 80 percent.

SPARING SKIN, NIPPLES

Doctors usually take the skin when they do a mastectomy to make sure they leave no cancer behind. But in the last decade they increasingly have left the skin in certain women with favorable tumor characteristics. Attai compares it to removing the inside of an orange while leaving the peel intact.

“We have learned over time that you can save skin” in many patients, Willey said. “Every single study has shown that it’s safe.”

Now they’re going the next step: preserving the nipple, which is even more at risk of being involved in cancer than the skin is. Only about 5 percent of women get this now, but eligibility could be expanded if it proves safe. The breast surgery society has a registry on nipple-sparing mastectomies that will track such women for 10 years.

“You really have to pick patients carefully,” because no one wants to compromise cancer control for cosmetic reasons, Attai said.

“The preliminary data are that nipple-sparing is quite good,” but studies haven’t been long enough to know for sure, Willey said. “It makes a huge difference in the cosmetic outcome. That makes the woman’s breast recognizable to her.”

Dr. Judy Boughey, a breast surgeon at the Mayo Clinic, said the new approach even has swayed patients’ treatment choices.

“We’re seeing women choosing the more invasive surgery, choosing the mastectomy,” because of doctors’ willingness to spare skin and nipples, she said.

It helped persuade Rose Ragona, a 51-year-old operations supervisor at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. She had both breasts removed on April 19 with the most modern approach: Immediate reconstruction, with preservation of her skin and nipples.

“To wake up and just see your breasts there helped me immensely,” she said.

She chose to have both breasts removed to avoid radiation and future worry.

“I felt it was a safer road to go,” she said. “I can’t live the rest of my life in fear. Every time there’s a lump I’m going to worry.”

FREEZING TUMORS

Attai, the California breast surgeon, is one of the researchers in a national study testing cryoablation. The technique uses a probe cooled with liquid nitrogen that turns tumors into ice balls of dead tissue that’s gradually absorbed by the body. This has been done since 2004 for benign breast tumors and the clinical trial is aimed at seeing if it’s safe for cancer treatment.

“The technology is amazing. This is done in the office under local anesthesia, a little skin puncture,” Attai said.

In the study, women still have surgery at some point after the freezing treatment to make sure all the cancer is destroyed. If it proves safe and effective, it could eliminate surgery for certain cancer patients.

“I’d love to see the day when we can offer women with small breast tumors a completely non-operative approach, and I do think that’s coming soon,” Attai said.

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