Safer Way to Assess Cancer

Head and neck melanomas assessed with sentinel node biopsy

(RxWiki News) For years, controversy has swelled around the safety of using a common technique to determine if head and neck melanoma has spread. A recently published study finds that sentinel node biopsies are both safe and useful.

New University of Michigan (U-M) research shows that studying the lymph nodes in the head and neck area can effectively determine the status of melanoma in that area. The procedure known as a sentinel node biopsy establishes the best way to treat the most serious - and deadly - form of skin cancer.

"Find a head and neck surgeon to learn if melanoma has spread."

During a sentinel lymph node biopsy, a special dye is injected close to the tumor to identify the first lymph node where the cancer most likely would spread.

This is a routine procedure for breast cancer patients. It's also usually offered for melanomas of a certain size.

If there's no cancer, the patient doesn't have to undergo often debilitating surgery to remove additional lymph nodes. If cancer is present, treatment options may involve surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, a combination of the all of these or a clinical trial.

Surgeons have long believed these types of biopsies were too dangerous and inaccurate for melanomas in the head and neck region because of the complex anatomy of the area with its critical nerves and blood vessels.

For this study, researchers looked at the records of 353 head and neck melanoma patients who had received the procedure at U-M over a 10-year period.

They found the sentinel node was accurately indentified in all but one patient, and no one was injured by the procedure.

Researchers did find false-negative (where cancer was present but not detected) results in four percent of the cases, which is comparable to results of the procedure used for melanomas located in other areas of the body.

Study author, Carol Bradford, M.D., professor and chair of otolaryngology at the U-M Medical School, says this research proves that sentinel node biopsies are both safe and effective for determining the best treatment options for people with head and neck melanomas.

Dr. Bradford adds that the procedure can also "offer patients the best hope of survival.”

This study is published online in the journal Cancer.

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Review Date: 
August 15, 2011