Unnecessary Breast Cancer Surgeries Throw Women Under the Bus

doctor performing surgeryNot only are California doctors trying to steer women away from learning potentially life-saving information about their breast health these days, but now comes news some surgeons have been performing unnecessary breast cancer surgeries on lower-income, older, and Hispanic women. What the heck? According to a study published in the Archives of Surgery, more than a third of some 18,000 women who had undergone a mastectomy for early-stage breast cancer had had their lymph nodes removed, as well, in a procedure known as axillary lymph node dissection, or ALND.

The thing is ... all of these women had node-negative tumors, meaning the cancer hadn't spread beyond the breast.


In 2005, the American Society of Clinical Oncology urged docs to consider removing only the lymph nodes closest to the tumor. And a Journal of the American Medical Association study done earlier this year said that removing lymph nodes doesn't help women live longer, as long as they're getting radiation and chemotherapy. It's not like "gentler," less invasive surgery is more expensive, the researchers say; it simply requires more coordination between different departments, which adds an extra step some surgeons might prefer to avoid.

Not sure if this all boils down to these lymph node hacking-happy surgeons being lazy, but one thing we can conclude is that there are docs out there practicing outdated medicine, and as a result, women are suffering. 

It must have something to do with how these groups of women are going to less-informed, old-school, or just lower-quality doctors and/or hospitals. Maybe they're the ones who are "in network" on a cheaper insurance plan. Maybe they're the ones who they've been seeing for years or who are the most conveniently located to their homes or place of work. But it doesn't matter. Every woman deserves to be treated by a doctor who is on top of the most current research and medical recommendations -- ESPECIALLY when it comes to something as serious as breast cancer, for crying out loud! 

A friend of mine once kept seeing an OB/GYN near her apartment who wasn't up on the latest info on treatment for HPV. I begged and pleaded with her to switch doctors, but she didn't until she actually moved out of the area. It broke my heart that she was putting her health in the hands of someone whose ignorance takes a toll on her patients' well-being.

This news about breast cancer surgeries sounds really discouraging, but it does teach us a few lessons. One, that women have to take matters into their own hands and be informed about the surgeries they're agreeing to have and whether or not they're truly required. And two, as the researchers of the Archives of Surgery study recommend, health care systems need to be more rigorous about examining the process of care and be bold enough to intervene and correct action when appropriate. It probably also wouldn't hurt for the ASCO and AMA to press docs more to read and practice the latest research. Medicine is always evolving -- doctors need to as well. In their hands, misinformation versus the latest research can be the difference between making or breaking someone's life.

What do you think about this new research?


Image via Official Navy Page/Flickr

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