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Breast cancer treatment by AGH 'gold standard'

| Monday, June 3, 2013, 10:08 p.m.

The results of a 10-year clinical trial by Allegheny General Hospital doctors confirm that a less invasive breast cancer treatment technique is the “gold standard,” allowing surgeons to remove a few lymph nodes from a woman's underarm area instead of all of them.

The technique, known as sentinel node resection, allows for a speedier recovery and results in fewer complications, doctors said. Removing all of the lymph nodes can result in long-term disabilities as well as tingling, weakness and swelling in the arm.

“If all you have to do is take out a couple lymph nodes, it allows patients to recover faster,” said Dr. Thomas Julian, associate director of the Breast Care Center at AGH and one of the clinical trial's principal investigators. “It allows for a better quality of life and it allows them to get back to whatever it is they need to get back to.”

Julian spoke from Chicago, where he presented the clinical trial's findings on Monday at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting.

Julian worked on the study with Dr. Norman Wolmark, a senior surgical director oncologist at AGH and chair of the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project.

“This study has really established sentinel node resection as the gold standard,” Julian said. “We have hard evidence now, 10 years of research to say, ‘Yeah, this is it.' ”

More than 200,000 women in the United States are diagnosed every year with breast cancer, AGH officials said. With early detection, the five-year survival rate is as high as 90 percent.

Kathy Purcell, CEO of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure's Pittsburgh affiliate, said the results “confirm what everyone suspected and what everyone hoped for.”

“This study gives women the assurance that (sentinel node resection) is as effective as the alternatives,” she said. “It's great news.”

Purcell and Julian credited the 5,611 women with invasive breast cancer who agreed to participate in the study.

Medical advancements are made possible by patients agreeing to participate in such studies “without knowing whether there will be a benefit to them,” Julian said.

“It's how doctors are able to find new treatments and prove that what they're doing works,” Purcell added. “If you can imagine, as you're being diagnosed, it's such a scary time — participating in a trial is not what you're thinking about. The normal reaction is to just say no.

“So when somebody can take the time to say, ‘Yes, I want to be part of this, I want to help other women,' it's extremely important,” she said.

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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