Richter said at the time of her surgery, her doctors told her about the potential side effects, including lymphedema. But she said they assured her that an axillary dissection was a standard procedure to ensure that all of the cancer cells around her tumor were removed.
"When you're faced with cancer, you do what you have to do for yourself," said Richter. "As a patient you do know about side effects, but you just want the breast cancer out."
Axillary dissection should not be discounted as an important practice, said Dr. Kelly Hunt, professor of surgery and chief of surgical breast oncology at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and co-author of the study. In fact, full lymph node removal is effective in women with more advanced breast cancer. The study focused on early stage breast cancer patients, she said.
"As we've learned more about biology of breast cancer we don't need these radical surgeries," said Hunt. "[We do] not [need to] create all this collateral damage by removing normal uninvolved lymph nodes."
Nearly a decade later, Richter said she had a short bout of cancer in her left breast, and said she opted out of a more aggressive treatment.
"[In 1990] I didn't have the option on how aggressive my treatment would be. So now, I'm living with lymphedema," said Richter. "Is it something that I like? No. But am I living? Yes."
According to ABC News chief health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser, the study not only suggests that those who undergo less extensive treatment stand a chance to live just as long, but can also live with fewer chance of complications.
"This study is part of a major change that has taken place over time in cancer treatment. It used to be the focus was just on survival," said Besser. "Over time there has been more attention placed on the quality of life cancer survivors' experience. For some 30,000 women, this study is very exciting news."
Richter said she was unsure whether a less aggressive treatment would help keep her alive longer. But she did not want to risk having to endure the side effects this time, she said.