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Colorectal Cancer Health Center

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Colon Cancer's Spread Often Unchecked

More Than 60% of U.S. Hospitals Fail Guidelines for Checking the Spread of Colon Cancer
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 9, 2008 -- More than 60% of U.S. hospitals flunk minimum guidelines for checking to see if colon cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, a national "report card" shows.

If you have surgery to remove colon cancer, successful treatment depends on doctors knowing whether the cancer has spread beyond the original tumor. The best way to do this is to examine nearby lymph nodes.

Guidelines call for doctors to examine at least 12 lymph nodes close to the tumor, at least 75% of the time.

But 62% of U.S. hospitals don't meet this guideline, say Northwestern University researcher Karl Y. Bilimoria, MD, and colleagues.

"The vast majority of hospitals are not adhering to this benchmark," Bilimoria tells WebMD. "There is a lot of room for improvement."

Bilimoria's team looked at how hospitals did over time. In 1996-1997, soon after the guidelines came out, only 15% of hospitals complied with the guideline. By 2004-2005, compliance increased -- but only to 38% of hospitals.

Some types of hospitals did a lot better than others:

  • 78% of Comprehensive Cancer Centers met the guideline.
  • 52% of other university-affiliated hospitals met the guideline.
  • 53% of Veterans Administration hospitals met the guideline.
  • 34% of community hospitals met the guideline.

Bilimoria says it's crucial for doctors to examine lymph nodes to know whether a patient needs systemic chemotherapy after surgery. When lymph-node examination is inadequate, patients risk missing out on lifesaving treatment -- or risk having to undergo unnecessary chemotherapy.

"Everybody who takes care of a lot of colon cancer patients tells stories about getting a pathology report that said five lymph nodes were examined, none with metastatic disease," Bilimoria says. "Then the surgeon asked the pathologist to go back to look for more nodes, and -- lo and behold -- one is positive, completely altering the care the patient would have received."

Medical oncologist Jay Brooks, MD, chief of hematology and oncology at Ochsner Medical Center in Baton Rouge, La., says it's not the fault of any individual surgeon or pathologist.

Brooks, who was not involved in the Bilimoria study, notes that in many smaller hospitals, surgeons never meet the pathologists who examine the lymph node tissues from their patients at outside reference laboratories.

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