Tracking breast cancer

October 1, 2009 3:25:06 PM PDT
This year, 182,000 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer. For many, the key to stopping it is removing lymph nodes where cancer has spread, but finding those lymph nodes can be a painful process. A new clinical trial could make it easier and less painful to stop the spread of breast cancer.

Carolyn Senegal and Brenda Savoy: Two women with one diagnosis -- breast cancer.

"I got very depressed and cried for about two weeks, and then after that I got strong," Brenda said.

Doctors want to make sure the disease hasn't spread to the lymph nodes, the first place cancer may go. Traditionally that means injecting a radioactive tracer while the patient is awake.

"The injection was very, very painful and very uncomfortable," Brenda said.

"This was described to me by some of my women patients as equally painful as having a child, and I said, now wait a minute, you can't have something be that painful and have women want to come back and do this again if they have another lump ever again," said Eugene Woltering, M.D., James D. Rives Professor of Surgery and Neuroscience at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans..

Dr. Woltering developed another option -- a new radioactive blue dye injected painlessly under anesthesia. In surgery, the new radioactive dye lights up hard-to-see lymph nodes that are likely to be cancerous.

"The lymph nodes define the spread of the tumor," William Harkrider, M.D., assistant professor of general surgery at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, said. "They help stage the tumor."

In a study the new dye worked just as well as the older version -- minus the pain. Now, Senegal and Savoy have one more thing in common. After months of treatment, they're both cancer-free. Dr. Woltering says the new procedure exposes patients and the medical team to one-third less radiation than the old technique.

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