The largest breast cancer study ever conducted has found that many women with breast cancer don’t need to undergo painful, hazardous chemo treatments
For decades, chemotherapy has been seen as a necessary evil when it comes to treating most kinds of breast cancer. Even though the drug treatment remains one of our most powerful tools in killing cancer cells, it can also wreck havoc on the body, both during treatment and for years afterward.
Now, a massive breast cancer study has just revealed that most women in the early stages of one of the most common forms of the disease can completely skip chemotherapy without harming their chances of survival, remission or recurrence. In fact, about 70 percent of women with hormone-receptor–positive, HER2-negative, node-negative breast cancer wouldn’t benefit from chemo–that’s about 70,000 women annually in the United States.
The study, which was published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, was funded by the National Cancer Institute, a number of grants and foundations, as well as proceeds from the the United States breast cancer stamp. It took place over the last ten years and followed over ten thousand women.
During the study, the women were given a genetic test called Oncotype DX to determine their risk for cancer reoccurrence. Those with an intermediate risk were split into two groups: half received surgery and hormone therapy, while half also received chemo. The results showed that the chemo made no significant difference at all in which women died from their cancer (about 6 percent for both groups) and which didn’t go into remission (about 16 percent for both groups).
There has long been suspicion that chemotherapy is overused in treating some forms of cancer–now doctors and patients can make more informed decisions about which cancer treatments they choose and which will be effective. This is one more piece of information that will help form treatment plans, along with information like the patient’s health history, her exact type of cancer, her stage of cancer, and her age. In addition to their Oncotype DX results, women most likely to be able to skip chemo have breast cancer that has not spread to their lymph nodes and have tumors smaller than five centimeters in diameter.
While chemo can be greatly helpful to some patients, it has a significant number of drawbacks and serious side effects. In the short term, chemotherapy can cause hair loss, nausea and other digestive issues, serious fatigue, weakness, and brain fog. In the long term, it can cause early menopause, bone loss, chronic pain, kidney damage, and heart failure.
Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among women in the world, and hormone-receptor-positive, HER2-negative, node-negative cancer constitutes about half of the 1.7 million cases diagnosed yearly worldwide.
“These findings, showing no benefit from receiving chemotherapy plus hormone therapy for most patients in this intermediate-risk group, will go a long way to support oncologists and patients in decisions about the best course of treatment,” Dr. Jeffrey Abrams, the associate director of the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Therapy Evaluation Program, stated in a press release.
As always, more research will clarify these findings, but for now, this new information will likely save thousands of women the pain and long-term health toll of chemo, while not at all affecting their chances of beating cancer.