Women who have fought breast cancer often find themselves in limbo. Has their cancer spread or not? Now, a new technique could help those women by finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
As a nurse and a breast cancer patient, Joyce knows what it’s like to wonder if the cancer has spread. “You think about death, you know? You wonder what the future’s going to hold for you,” says Joyce.
Now, this machine may take away the uncertainty. It’s called a polymerase chain reaction probe, or PCR. Dr. Cole uses it to tell if breast cancer has spread to lymph nodes. A piece of the lymph node is turned into a soupy mixture and placed in the PCR. It amplifies genetic material until it can be seen. Under ultraviolet light, dim smudges tell Dr. Cole the answer. In this case, the cancer has spread.
“The data that we have thus far would say that you can detect one cancer cell in about a million. That would be somewhere between 10 to 100 times better than routine pathology,” says Dr. Cole.
Of 45 women studied, standard screening found cancer had spread in 16 of them. But the PCR showed it had actually spread in 30 of them. Better detection means better treatment. It costs less too.
“Our estimate is it would be about a quarter of the cost of it going to the pathologist, getting stained and getting read with professional fees,” says Dr. Cole.
Price is nice, but for patients like Joyce, the best thing is no longer being in the dark about their cancer.
The PCR machine is actually used in many hospitals now… but for a different purpose. Dr. Cole says switching it over to this use should be inexpensive. It just takes doctors who are willing to try the procedure while studies of its accuracy continue.