Every year up to 250 people have breast cancer operations at West Suffolk Hospital – but for some the lifesaving surgery comes at a cost.
The chance of serious long term problems from removal of underarm lymph nodes can be as much as one in four.
That’s why the hospital’s My WiSH Charity has launched a £25,000 appeal to help reduce the risk.
They are calling for help to buy state-of-the-art technology which can mean less invasive surgery is needed.
It could save dozens of patients a year from suffering debilitating complications for the rest of their lives.
The SentiMag system is a new and more efficient way of pinpointing which lymph nodes might be affected by the cancer.
It means the surgeon can go straight to those that need removing. And unlike one alternative tracking method, it avoids using radiation.
My WiSH has christened the appeal Love Your Nodes.
They want to raise enough money to buy a SentiMag machine by the end of this year.
If they reach their target it could be up and running at the start of 2017.
Consultant surgeon Mr Eamonn Coveney said: “We would be one of the first units in the country to have it.
“SentiMag is relatively new. There have been a number of trials in the UK but it’s not in routine practice.”
When cancer occurs in the breast it can spread to the lymph glands, or nodes, in the armpit.
So breast cancer patients face follow-up surgery to trace and remove any that could be affected.
If large numbers of the nodes are removed there is up to a one in four risk of developing a condition called lymphoedema.
Sufferers experience severe swelling caused by a build-up of lymphatic fluid that no longer drains away.
Other patients are left with numbness in their arm.
But the risks are much lower if the affected nodes can be easily identified because it reduces the need for more extensive surgery.
Former breast cancer patient Pam Auden is an enthusiastic backer of the appeal.
“I’d urge everyone to support it and help raise the money,” said Pam, a grandmother who lives in Bury St Edmunds.
“Having breast cancer is bad enough without developing complications, and anything that makes that less likely is really good news.
“It would be wonderful to have a way of reducing the risk of after effects from the lymph node surgery.”
Pam, 67, who was a medical PA at West Suffolk Hospital remembers vividly the shock of being told she had cancer.
Ten years ago she had a mastectomy, with immediate breast reconstruction, and spent 13 hours in theatre.
She then faced further surgery to identify and remove affected lymph nodes in her armpit.
“I was given a choice of having them all removed, or sampling to see if the cancer had spread.
“I chose sampling, and it had spread, so I had to have them out,” she said.
“I’m lucky that I didn’t develop lymphoedema, but my left armpit and the inside of my arm almost down to the elbow is now completely numb.
“I can’t lift anything heavy with my left arm, and have to be very careful to avoid infections.”
Mr Coveney said: “Normally with breast cancer, you remove lymph nodes from the armpit in case the cancer has spread, and the patient can end up with numbness or lymphoedema.
“When I first qualified we would have removed all the glandular tissue in the armpit.
“Since then we have looked at ways to reduce the risks by cherry-picking those nodes that drain the breast and leaving the others.
“To do that we need a technique to identify them. We have been doing this by injecting a blue dye into the breast which flows to the armpit.
“The downside is it may dye lots of glands, and 10 to 20 percent of the time it doesn’t go to the glands at all and you can’t find any.
“Some hospitals have been using a tracking method that involves radioactive protein.
“The downside of that is you are exposing patients and staff to radiation. There are also heavy regulations from a legal point of view.
“You need a licence, which is held by an individual person, so if they leave you lose the licence too.
“And it takes one to two years to train a radiologist to use the equipment.
“Also, everything used in theatre has to be disposed of afterwards,” said Mr Coveney who has been a consultant at the hospital in Bury St Edmunds for 16 years.
By contrast, the SentiMag system has a hand-held probe used by the surgeon.
Microscopic magnetic beads, exactly the right size to get trapped by the lymph nodes, are injected into the breast.
They travel through the lymph channels and the surgeon uses the probe to detect the glands with a magnetic signal.
“When you put the probe into the armpit through a small incision you can see when the signal gets stronger,” said Mr Coveney.
“That shows the direction of dissection, whereas with dye, you have to go in and look. There is less operative time and less damage to the armpit.
“There is a shorter recovery period, less risk of complications in the long term, and no risk from radiation.
“It’s a technique that eventually could be extended to other cancers like melanoma which can spread to lymph glands in the armpit or groin.”
Sue Smith, fundraising manager of My WiSH Charity, says buying the SentiMag machine fits perfectly with their ethos.
“Our aim is to go above and beyond what the hospital can normally afford to provide,” she said.
My WiSH organises appeals, runs its own fundraising events, and helps people – often former patients and their families – who want to raise money for specific items and departments.
One hospital employee is already planning to take on a challenge to support Love Your Nodes.
Carol Watson, a secretary with the breast surgery team, is gearing up to go on a 100 mile sponsored cycle ride.
To donate to Love Your Nodes, or for help setting up a fundraising event, call Sue or Sally on 01284 712952, or go to the website MyWiSHcharity.co.uk.