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Radiation Cuts Risk of Breast Cancer Recurrence by Two-Thirds

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Heart-related problems caused the deaths of most of the women who died from something other than breast cancer. The risk of dying from a cause other than breast cancer was lowest for women who were 50 and younger at the time of their breast-cancer diagnosis, and highest for women who were 60-69 at that time.

"For the younger women, even with the older radiotherapy regimens, the benefits outweigh the risks," Collins says. "For older women or for women with very low risk of recurrence, it's not clear that the benefits outweigh the risks seen in these studies."

Many of the women studied who were given radiation would probably receive chemotherapy and tamoxifen, a drug used to treat and prevent recurrence of breast cancer, if they were diagnosed today, John M. Kurtz, MD, says in an editorial accompanying the study. Kurtz, of University Hospital in Geneva, Switzerland, says newer studies -- specifically, two large Danish trials -- show that modern radiation techniques can protect against the recurrence of breast cancer and against death from breast cancer, while also reducing the risk of death caused by damage to the heart and blood vessels.

Collins says that while the newer studies show promise, researchers will need to follow the women's progress for another five to 10 years before they can be certain that the newer radiation methods reduce the risks to the heart and surrounding structures. More important, he says, is the need to consider the overall benefit to the patient.

The good news is that this study proves that radiation works, says Lawrence Solin, MD, an expert who commented on the findings for WebMD.

"This is an important lesson ... that local therapy can cure patients, but it has to be done right, and today we think we have better techniques to do that," says Solin, a professor of radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. "The message for patients is that they need to be certain they're being treated in a center with high-quality technical radiotherapy."

Vital Information:

  • Women who receive radiation therapy for early-stage breast cancer following surgery have a lower rate of cancer recurrence, according to a new study.
  • Radiation treatment was associated with a slightly lower overall survival rate, but researchers believe this is because the data is from the 1960s to 1980s.
  • Today, radiation techniques are better, as medical professionals can avoid exposing the heart and surrounding structures to radiation beams.
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