Undetected cancer among women undergoing a type of minimally invasive hysterectomy or fibroid removal surgery is more common than previously thought, a new study finds. Researchers at Boston Medical Center report that the risk of such hidden cancer is about 1 in 352 women.
The upshot: these women may have had the undetected cancer spread within their bodies inadvertently through a technique that has fallen out of favor called “power morcellation,” which was typically used in these types of surgeries. The technique involves cutting the woman’s uterus or fibroids into small pieces to make them easier to remove during the less invasive laparoscopic procedure.
The new findings (which looked at the cases of more than 19,000 women) support a 2014 estimate by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that approximately 1 in 350 women undergoing this type of surgery face the risk of hidden cancer. But earlier conventional wisdom was that the risk of undetected cancer for women undergoing this kind of surgery was closer to 1 in nearly 5,000 or more.
“The take-home message of the study is that the true risk of an undetected cancer at the time of gynecologic surgery for what was assumed to be benign disease is about 1 in 352 women,” says Dr. Rebecca Perkins, a practicing gynecologist at BMC and lead author of the new study.
This kind of minimally invasive surgery had “increased greatly” over the past decade, researchers report, because the procedures involved less pain and shorter recoveries, among other benefits.
But power morcellation came under public and regulatory scrutiny a few years ago (in large part due to excellent reporting by Jennifer Levitz at The Wall Street Journal). In 2014, the FDA issued a series of warnings against the use of laparoscopic power morcellators in the majority of women undergoing these types of gynecologic surgeries because of the risk of spreading unsuspected cancer.
At that time, regulators estimated the risk of hidden cancer this way:
Based on an FDA analysis of currently available data, we estimate that approximately 1 in 350 women undergoing hysterectomy or myomectomy for the treatment of fibroids is found to have an unsuspected uterine sarcoma, a type of uterine cancer that includes leiomyosarcoma. At this time, there is no reliable method for predicting or testing whether a woman with fibroids may have a uterine sarcoma.
If laparoscopic power morcellation is performed in women with unsuspected uterine sarcoma, there is a risk that the procedure will spread the cancerous tissue within the abdomen and pelvis, significantly worsening the patient’s long-term survival. While the specific estimate of this risk may not be known with certainty, the FDA believes that the risk is higher than previously understood.