A new study of over 10,000 women with breast cancer revealed that Chemotherapy Recommended for Younger Women With Breast Cancer (dateline February 22, 2000) | Breast Health News | Imaginis - The Women's Health & Wellness Resource Network

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Chemotherapy Recommended for Younger Women With Breast Cancer (dateline February 22, 2000)

A new study of over 10,000 women with breast cancer revealed that women under the age of 35 may greatly increase their chances of surviving the disease if they undergo chemotherapy after breast cancer surgery. According to the research, women under age 35 are more than twice as likely to die of breast cancer within 10 years of diagnosis than older women. Because breast cancer is much more aggressive in younger women, even young women with early stage, low grade breast tumors that do not appear as though they have spread past the breast are encouraged to undergo chemotherapy.

The study, published in the February 19, 2000 issue of the British Medical Journal, studied 10,356 women under age 50 who had breast cancer. The majority of women were treated with breast surgery—either removal of the breast lump with lumpectomy or breast removal with mastectomy. Compared with women who did not have chemotherapy after surgery, the risk of dying was significantly higher among younger women. Women between the ages of 35 and 39 were 40% more likely to die of breast cancer compared with women in their later 40s. Women younger than age 35 were 118% more likely to die of breast cancer.

Though researchers have known for some time that breast tumors are more aggressive in younger women, they are still unsure of the reason. Younger patients do tend to be diagnosed with more advanced stages of breast cancer than middle-aged women in part because their breasts are denser, making it more difficult to spot the cancer with breast imaging tests (such as mammography).  Some recurrences (return after treatment) of breast cancer are also more likely in younger women.

Lead researcher Mads Melbye, MD of the Statens Serum Institut in Copenhagen believes that based on the results of this new study, all young women with breast cancer should consider chemotherapy, even if the cancer has not spread past the breast. Other physicians believe the issue is more complex. Gary Clark, PhD, professor of medicine and associate director of The Breast Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston does not believe that the decision to give chemotherapy should not be based solely on the patient’s age.

Currently, the majority of breast cancers are usually treated with surgery, either lumpectomy or mastectomy. In addition, many women undergo radiation therapy after surgery to help destroy off any remaining cancer cells. However, women do not normally undergo chemotherapy unless the cancer has spread into the axillary (underarm) lymph nodes or to other regions of the body.

Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment; it affects the entire body as opposed to local treatments that only target one area. Many women are reluctant to undergo chemotherapy because the treatment is associated with several side effects. The most common side effects of chemotherapy are nausea, hair loss , and fatigue. However, side effects vary considerably from one patient to another. Not all women experience significant side effects to chemotherapy.

Other less common side effects of chemotherapy may include:

  • infection
  • numbness in hands or feet
  • increased chance of bleeding
  • mouth sores
  • diarrhea or constipation
  • fluid retention

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