St. Vincent’s first in CT with new breast cancer surgery tech

Photo of Amanda Cuda

When Mitzi Barhost first heard she needed a mastectomy of her right breast to treat her breast cancer, it wasn’t the procedure itself that frightened her most.

“I had often heard that the worst thing about surgery was not the surgery itself, but getting lymph nodes removed (after),” said Barhost, 66, of Waterford, who had her mastectomy in May at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport.

Lymph nodes are tiny structures in the body that filter out foreign substances, such as cancer cells. Sometimes, the nodes are removed following cancer surgery if there is reason to believe that cancer has spread to them. The removal of the lymph nodes can lead to a condition called lymphedema, which is swelling due to the build-up of fluid in the body.

According to the American Cancer Society, lymphedema can cause swelling, discomfort, and a loss of flexibility or movement in the affected area.

“The problem is, once you have lymphedema there’s no cure,” said Valerie Brutus, the breast surgeon at St. Vincent’s who did Barhost’s surgery.

However, St. Vincent’s recently started using a product called Magtrace, which aims to limit the unnecessary removal of lymph nodes and reduce the risk of lymphedema.

Magtrace is a liquid that can be injected anywhere between seven days and 20 minutes before a surgery, and used to detect the sentinel lymph nodes, which are the first lymph nodes into which a tumor drains.

Brutus said previous dyes that were used to detect sentinel lymph nodes usually left the system in 24 hours or less. She said this usually didn’t give doctors ample time to determine whether the cancer had spread, and the nodes were often just removed as a precaution.

However, Brutus said, the Magtrace dye stays in the system longer, allowed the surgeons to “tag” the nodes and perform a pathology on breast tissue removed during a mastectomy. If the pathology shows evidence the cancer has spread, the nodes are removed, she said. But if there’s no evidence the cancer has spread, the nodes can stay.

Barhost, who received her official breast cancer diagnosis in January, was the first patient at St. Vincent’s to have a surgery using Magtrace.

According to Endomag, the company that produces Magtrace, St. Vincent’s is the first hospital in Connecticut to use the product, although other hospitals in the state now use it as well. Endomag has headquarters in both Texas and the United Kingdom.

Brutus said only patients with a certain type of breast cancer — ductal carcinoma in situ — who require a mastectomy are eligible for Magtrace. Ductal carcinoma in situ occurs when abnormal cells appear inside a milk duct in the breast, but haven’t spread outside. Though it’s unlikely to spread beyond the tissue, it’s important to make sure the cancer hasn’t spread to other parts of the body.

Barhost said, when she learned she needed a mastectomy, she shopped around for a surgery and picked St. Vincent’s largely because of their use of Magtrace. She said she was “really concerned” about lymph node removal and the possibility of lymphedema, so this seemed like a good idea.

Ultimately, her pathology showed that her cancer hadn’t spread, and her nodes didn’t need to be removed. A few months out from the surgery, Barhost said she’s doing well.

“I feel great,” Barhost said. “Since recovery I’ve traveled and just done everything I’ve normally done. Everybody who sees me says ‘You’re doing amazing.’”