An instant test which could spare thousands of women the agony of waiting weeks to find out if breast cancer has spread has been approved for use by the NHS.
Currently, women diagnosed with with early stage invasive breast cancer undergo a biopsy of their lymph nodes during surgery to remove tumours in the breast. They have to wait up to three weeks for the result, and if further disease is found, they have go undergo a second operation.
The new test means that surgeons can find out if cancer has spread during the initial surgery – and if they find it, they can remove it at the same time.
The breakthrough means more than 11,000 patients will be able to have fewer operations, and thousands more will no longer be forced to endure an anxious wait.
The speedier diagnosis also means that treatments such as chemotherapy can be started more quickly.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has recommended the test – the RD-100i OSNA system produced by Sysmex UK – for women with early stage invasive breast cancer.
Every year, around 11,000 people with newly diagnosed breast cancer need further surgery because the disease has spread to their lymph nodes.
The armpit lymph node to which cancer is most likely to spread is known as the sentinel lymph node.
At the moment, sentinel lymph nodes are removed with the main tumour during surgery and are biopsied to see if the disease has spread.
But the results from the biopsy can take up to 15 working days to come back.
The new test gives much more rapid results to waiting surgeons and analyses the whole lymph node, reducing the chance that tiny particles of cancer are missed.
Professor Carole Longson, NICE health technology evaluation centre director, said: “For people with breast cancer and their families, waiting to hear if the disease has spread can cause significant distress and anxiety.
“If the test is positive, and a second operation is needed to remove more of the axillary lymph nodes, the second operation can be technically more difficult and result in a higher risk of complications.
“The committee heard from a patient expert that the option of not having to have a second operation was an important consideration for patients.
“The committee also considered that the accuracy of histopathology may vary depending on the number and size of the lymph node sections examined.
“The committee therefore concluded that analysis of sentinel lymph nodes using the RD-100i OSNA system during operations had considerable advantages over traditional histopathology testing and had the potential to reduce both clinical complications and patient anxiety and distress.”
Dr Richard Francis, head of research for Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: “This faster testing process is great news as it means that up to 11,000 women a year will not have to go through a second surgical procedure.
“Any operation carries risk so removing the need for any additional surgery, as well as the anxiety that can be caused whilst waiting for results, is far better for patients and their families.
“Additionally, this faster process will free up resources and surgeons’ time, which will benefit both the NHS and patients.”
Barbara Jacoby is an award winning blogger that has contributed her writings to multiple online publications that have touched readers worldwide.