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Radiation Therapy Reduces Breast Cancer Recurrence, Improves Survival After Lumpectomy (dateline May 1, 2001)

A new study finds that women who are diagnosed with breast cancer and receive genetic testing to determine their risk of developing cancer in the opposite breast are more likely to choose preventive treatment. Normally, women with breast cancer are given the option of genetic testing after their breast cancer surgery to determine whether they carry mutations of certain genes that put them at greater risk of developing breast cancer in the other breast. However, the current study suggests that performing genetic testing prior to breast cancer surgery can help women make informed decisions about preventive measures.

An analysis of several studies finds that the use of radiation therapy after breast-conserving surgery (also called lumpectomy) NOT ONLY reduces the chances that breast cancer will return but also increases the overall odds of survival in early breast cancer patients. Though the ability of radiation therapy to reduce the recurrence of breast cancer is generally well-known, the fact that survival can improve with radiation therapy is quite promising. This may encourage more early stage breast cancer patients to comply with the standard recommendation of radiation after lumpectomy.

Radiation therapy (or radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to stop cancer cells from growing and dividing. Radiation therapy is often used to destroy any remaining breast cancer cells in the breast, chest wall, or axilla (underarm) area after surgery. Women who undergo lumpectomy are usually advised to receive approximately six weeks of radiation therapy after surgery.

To study the benefits of radiation therapy, Vincent Vinh-Hung, M.D., of the Oncology Center at Academic Hospital in Jette, Belgium, and colleagues conducted a pooled analysis of published clinical trials that compared the use of radiation versus no radiation after breast-conserving surgery. A review of 15 studies in Europe, Canada and the United States found that women who did not receive radiation therapy after breast-conserving surgery were three times more likely to experience a recurrence of breast cancer than the women who underwent radiation.

Even more promising, Dr. Vinh-Hung and his team found that not using radiation therapy after breast-conserving surgery can increase the risk of death from breast cancer. On the other hand, the chances of surviving breast cancer improved among women with small breast cancer tumors who received radiation in addition to surgery.

The researchers are encouraged by the results of the study. The finding that radiation therapy increases the overall chances of surviving breast cancer should motivate more women with early stage breast cancer to undergo radiation after surgery, predict the researchers. The study is published in the January 21, 2004 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Though the study finds that radiation can reduce the chances the breast cancer will return and increase the chances of survival, radiation is not without side effects. In addition to prolonging the overall period of breast cancer treatment, radiation therapy can cause the following:

  • Fatigue
  • Reduction in white blood cells
  • Breast swelling or tenderness
  • Feeling of heaviness in the breast
  • Sunburn-like appearance of the breast skin
  • Loss of appetite

These side effects tend to be temporary, and in the vast majority of cases, the inconvenience of radiation therapy is a small price to pay in comparison with the benefits it can provide breast cancer patients.

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