Lymph Biopsy Benefit Unclear, More Study Needed, BMJ Says

An invasive type of biopsy to diagnose the spread of skin cancer is becoming more common, even as there remains a lack of evidence showing that the procedure is beneficial, the British Medical Journal reported.

The so-called sentinel node biopsy has become standard in the U.S., where it cost an estimated $686 million last year, BMJ reported today in an article by a freelance journalist. Still, a 2006 study showed that the procedure failed to improve overall survival after five years, and further analyses that might have settled the question of effectiveness were never published, according to the report.

In sentinel node biopsy, doctors take a sample from the lymph node nearest to the skin cancer for testing. If it shows that the cancer has spread to the node, patients are advised to have some of the surrounding lymph nodes removed, according to the article.

The procedure leads to unnecessary surgeries, which carry with them the risk of complications, BMJ said.

Lymph nodes, found in the groin, neck and chest, are part of the body’s immune system, collecting and destroying bacteria and infections.

The 2006 study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that while patients who had the biopsy lived longer without the disease recurring, they actually didn’t live longer lives than those who didn’t undergo the procedure, according to BMJ. The study authors should release further analyses of the overall survival data, the BMJ said.

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