Thousands of women could skip painful and detrimental chemotherapy in treating early-stage breast cancer, according to a groundbreaking study.
The decade-long study, discussed Sunday at the American Society of Clinical Oncology conference in Chicago, is hailed as the largest breast cancer treatment trial ever conducted. It showed most patients with an intermediate risk of cancer recurrence can avoid chemotherapy without hurting their chances of beating the disease.
That could affect up to 70,000 women a year in the USA and thousands more around the world, the study said.
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“The impact is tremendous,” said the study’s leader, Joseph Sparano of Montefiore Medical Center in New York. Most women in this situation don’t need treatment beyond surgery and hormone therapy, and “the rest of them are receiving chemotherapy unnecessarily.”
Jennifer Litton, an associate professor and oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, said the results will help patients and their doctors make more informed decisions.
“Moving forward, when women are making this decision, this study will help us put it into perspective and give them better advice next week than we were able to give them last week,” said Litton, who attended the conference where the results were discussed.
The study, funded by the National Cancer Institute, foundations and proceeds from the U.S. breast cancer postage stamp, is the latest development in a national trend on cancer treatments. For the past several years, cancer care has evolved away from chemotherapy — older drugs with harsh side effects — in favor of gene-targeting therapies, hormone blockers and immune system treatments. When chemo is used, it’s sometimes for shorter periods or lower doses than it once was.
Another study at the conference found that Merck’s immunotherapy drug Keytruda worked better than chemo as initial treatment for most people with the most common type of lung cancer, and with far fewer side effects.
The breast cancer study cast doubt on chemo’s necessity in treating women in early stages of the disease where it has not spread to lymph nodes, it is hormone-positive and it is not the type that the drug Herceptin targets.