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Putting morcellation into perspective – ‘Just the facts, Ma’am, nothing but the facts’


Electronic morcellators generally consist of a rotating circular blade at the end of a hollow tube, as seen above.

Physical examination and imaging may be helpful in finding enlarged lymph nodes, but imaging methods have not been reliably shown to enable a preoperative diagnosis of uterine leiomyosarcoma (Lancet Oncol. 2009;10:1188-98; AJR Am. J. Roentgenol. 2003;181:1369-74). Further, while some physicians point out that an ill-defined margin may increase leiomyosarcoma risk, this finding is certainly noted as well with benign adenomyomas.

Finally, data are scant in support of preoperative endometrial sampling to establish a diagnosis of leiomyosarcoma. In two studies comparing a total of 14 patients, 7 were correctly diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma prior to surgery (Am. J. Obstet. Gynecol. 1990;162:968-74; Gynecol. Oncol. 2008;110:43-8).

With little differentiation in clinical presentation and the inability to distinguish leiomyoma from leiomyosarcoma based on imaging or sampling, it is not surprising that patients undergoing morcellation for an expected benign condition would subsequently be diagnosed with uterine leiomyosarcoma. With this in mind, it is important to review the current body of literature to further evaluate the risks and benefits of morcellation, and what place minimally invasive gynecologic surgery will have for the treatment of uterine masses.

A tenaculum or multitoothed grasper is placed through the tube and blade to grasp the tissue to the revolving blade; the specimen is then removed in strips.

Tumor morcellation of unrecognized leiomyosarcomas was significantly associated with poorer disease free survival (odds ratio, 2.59, P = 1.43), higher stage (I vs. II; [OR, 19.12, P = .037]) and poorer overall survival (OR, 3.07, P =.040) in a 2011 study. Park et al. assessed 56 consecutive patients, 25 with morcellation and 31 without tumor morcellation, who had stage I and stage II uterine leiomyosarcomas and were treated between 1989 and 2010. The percentage of patients with dissemination also was noted to be greater in patients with tumor morcellation (44% vs. 12.9%, P =.032). Interestingly, ovarian tissue was more frequently preserved in the morcellation group (38.7% vs. 72%, P =.013) (Gynecol. Oncol. 2011;122:255-9)

In response to a subsequent Letter to the Editor about these risks, the study’s author put the findings in perspective. "The frequency of incidental uterine leiomyosarcoma in patients who undergo surgery for presumed uterine leiomyoma is extremely rare. At our medical center, only 49 of 22,825 patients (0.21%) who underwent surgery for presumed uterine leiomyoma had incidental uterine leiomyosarcoma. Therefore, we believe that surgeons need not avoid non-laparotomic* surgical routes because of the rare possibility of an incidental diagnosis of leiomyosarcoma, even when tumor morcellation is required" (Gynecol. Oncol. 2012;124:172-3).

Additionally, a retrospective study from Brigham & Women’s Hospital found that disease was often already disseminated before morcellation procedures. In 21 patients with a median age of 46 years and no documented evidence of extrauterine disease, 15 had uterine leiomyosarcomas and 6 had smooth muscle tumors of uncertain malignant potential that were inadvertently morcellated; data was incorporated from January 2005 to January 2012. While most patients underwent power morcellation with laparoscopy, two underwent laparoscopically assisted vaginal hysterectomy with hand morcellation, and one patient had a vaginal hysterectomy with hand morcellation.

Fragments of the fibroid, which were removed before closing, are seen on the pelvic wall (bottom right).

Immediate surgical reexploration was performed for staging in 12 patients. Significant findings of disseminated intraperitoneal disease were detected in two of seven patients with presumed stage I uterine leiomyosarcoma and in one of four patients with presumed stage I smooth muscle tumors of uncertain malignant potential. Moreover, of the eight patients who did not have disseminated disease at the time of the staging procedure, one subsequently had a recurrence. The remaining patients had no recurrences and remain disease free.

One patient was already FIGO stage IV at the original surgery, two more patients were upstaged at the original surgery and underwent re-exploration at 18 and 20 months respectively (certainly, a long period prior to second look). Moreover, the authors note various reasons why a significant number of patients were upstaged; including incorrect staging after initial surgery, progression of disease during the time interval, or secondary to direct seeding of morcellated tumor fragments. Five of the 15 leiomyosarcoma patients were deceased at the time of the publication. The authors also point out that their study is limited by the fact that it is retrospective, and access to information regarding care received from non-affiliated institutions is limited (Gynecol. Oncol. 2014;132:360-5).

In summary, morcellation of an unsuspected uterine sarcoma, whether using an electrically powered morcellator at the time of laparoscopy or cold knife at time of vaginal surgery, appears to have a negative impact; however, the studies to date are merely retrospective case studies. By no means do they provide the evidence required to place a moratorium on morcellation.

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