May 20th, 2010
06:50 PM ET
By Miriam Falco
Older breast cancer patients who have their small tumors surgically removed get little benefit from radiation treatment, according to a study released Thursday by the American Society of Clinical Oncologists.
Researchers followed 636 women with early stage estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer, which is fairly common in older women. according to ASCO president Dr. Douglas Blaney.
The standard therapy for this type of cancer is to surgically remove the tumor, then give the women a drug called tamoxifen, which blocks the hormone estrogen, which can fuel tumor growth. The tamoxifen is then followed by intense radiation therapy to kill any remaining cancer cells.
All of the women in the study had a lumpectomy and got the hormone-blocking drug. Only half the women also went on to have radiation therapy – the other half did not.
Researchers found the survival was equal after just over 10 years.
"Avoiding radiation is feasible,” study author Dr. Kevin Hughes concludes based on the results.
The impact of these study results could be quite dramatic for breast cancer patients.
Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, believes the results of this study "will be practice changing,” meaning that it is likely to become the standard treatment for some of these patients.
"Getting the women to the doctor every day for six weeks is very difficult," says Brawley. "One-third of women drop out from radiation after two to three weeks."
Dr. Douglas Blaney, president of ASCO, didn't go so far. He thinks the research is "possibly practice changing" and says when women find out how small the radiation benefit really is and choose to defer getting it, "this gives us some comfort as physicians in supporting our patients."
The study also found only 7 percent of the women in this trial who already passed away actually died from breast cancer, leading Hughes to conclude "death from [this type of] breast cancer is a very rare event for women with very small tumors.
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