Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Breast Cancer Health Center

Font Size

Test May Predict Spread of Early Breast Cancer

Rare Tumor Cells Found in Blood May Predict Aggressive Disease, Even When Breast Cancer Is Caught Early
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

blood cells

June 5, 2012 -- A new study shows that some breast cancers try to spread much earlier than doctors once believed, and a blood test may one day be the way to find out.

The study, of 302 patients with early-stage breast cancer, found that about 1 in 4 patients whose tumors had not yet apparently spread beyond the breast or lymph nodes already had cancer cells circulating in their blood.

These rare cells, which are shed by tumors, are thought to be cancer seeds that can take root elsewhere in the body.

What's more, the study showed that patients who had these cells in their blood were also the ones that had the poorest outcomes.

"If they have them they had roughly four times the risk of either [the cancer] recurring or dying than those who don't have the cells," says researcher Anthony Lucci, MD, a surgical oncologist at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Overall, 15% of patients who tested positive for circulating tumor cells (CTCs) relapsed and 10% died during the study, compared to 3% and 2%, respectively, of patients who did not test positive for CTCs.

The odds that breast cancer would progress or turn fatal rose with each CTC that was detected.

Patients with two or more CTCs, for example, were more than five times likelier to see their cancer progress and eight times more likely to die than patients with no CTCs. Those with three or more CTCs were nearly seven times more likely to see their cancer progress and nearly 12 times more likely to die over the three years, on average, they were followed for the study.

The study, which is published in The Lancet Oncology, may help to explain why about 25% of patients who catch their cancer early will see it return, even after successful surgery to remove their tumors.

The study also suggests that a blood test may one day help doctors better identify and treat patients who have fast-spreading cancers.

A Useful Tool for the Future

"This study is pretty compelling evidence that this might be a good tool for oncologists to say, 'OK, because these patients have cells in circulation, their prognosis is worse,'" says Carmen Gomez-Fernandez, MD, professor of pathology and director of breast pathology services at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine. Gomez-Fernandez reviewed the study for WebMD but was not involved in the research.

Other experts agree.

"What it means is that we can identify those individuals quite early on who might have a decreased survival based on a simple blood test," says Justin Stebbing, MD, PhD, a surgical oncologist at Imperial College London in England. Stebbing wrote a commentary on the study but was not involved in the research.

Today on WebMD

Breast Cancer Overview
From self-exams and biopsies to reconstruction, we’ve got you covered.
Dealing with breast cancer
Get answers to your questions.
 
woman having mammogram
Experts don’t agree on all fronts, but you can be your own advocate.
woman undergoing breast cancer test
Many women worry. But the truth? Most abnormalities aren’t breast cancer.
 
Breast Cancer Treatments Improving
VIDEO
Resolved To Quit Smoking
SLIDESHOW
 
Woman getting mammogram
Article
Screening Tests for Women
SLIDESHOW
 
ovarian cancer overview slideshow
SLIDESHOW
serious woman
Article
 
what is your cancer risk
HEALTH CHECK
10 Ways to Revitalize Slideshow
SLIDESHOW