Changes in Breast Cancer treatment could help save more lives

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A major study undertaken by researchers at Oxford University has found that it is absolutely necessary for women who have undergone a mastectomy to receive radiotherapy treatment if the disease has spread. Experts have called for major changes to the normal practice in the NHS which could save thousands of lives.

According to the current guidance in the NHS, radiotherapy treatment is only needed if cancer has been found in four of the lymph nodes, as well as in the woman’s breast. The study which involved 3,700 females with breast cancer, found that radiotherapy treatment has a huge impact in reducing the risk of recurrence in all women who had cancer in at least one of the lymph nodes. In these cases, the treatment reduced the recurrence risk by 33% which lowers the death rate by around 20%.

The University’s Clinical Trial Service Unit has found that only women who indicated lymph nodes that were completely void of disease could avoid radiotherapy treatment safely.

The study used results taken from 3,786 females from 14 random trials between the periods 1964 to 1982. The participants had undergone mastectomies, as well as lymph node removal under their arms. The participants were randomised to those who received radiotherapy either to the chest wall or any surrounding areas, to those who received no radiotherapy treatment.

The participants in the clinical trial were split into three categories – a group with no lymph node cancer, those who had cancer in one, two or three of the nodes, and another group with cancer in four or more nodes. Follow-ups were done for a period of just more than 11 years.

The leader of the study, Dr Paul McGale, has revealed that in 700 females where no signs existed that the nodes were affected, the treatment had no effect in the reduction of the risk of recurrence or of the woman dying of breast cancer. In 1,314 women who had between one and three affected lymph nodes, radiotherapy treatment was seen to reduce the rate of recurrence by approximately one third and the death rate by 20%.

Charities have responded to these results by stating that the NHS needs to re-evaluate their current guidance policies which state that sufferers of cancer in one to three nodes should only receive the treatment as part of clinical trials.

Image credit: Caitlin Regan

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